Not for the first time Jonny May has an amusing story to tell. As he prepares to win his 50th cap against Australia he is reflecting on winning his first, six years ago on England’s tour of Argentina. It is often said by professional sportsmen and women that they have their parents to thank for their success. For May all the more so because they were the reason he missed a drinking session that could have prevented him beginning his Test career.
May was 23 at the time, all arms and legs, with blistering speed but a tendency for the erratic. With 10 England players in Australia with the British & Irish Lions however, May was taken to Argentina by Stuart Lancaster. He had David Strettle, Christian Wade and Marland Yarde for competition but he was convinced he would get some game time in the two-Test series, so much so that his parents Peter and Hazel flew out.
The first Test came and went for May with Strettle and Wade preferred. Wade had a stormer, Strettle not so much but for the second, Yarde got the nod. May did not even make either matchday squads but when Wade was called up by the Lions on the morning of the second Test, things took a turn for the better. There was all of a sudden a place in the starting lineup but those players not in the 23 had gone for a night out and were hardly in the right shape for a Test match. All that is, except May, who had gone out for dinner with his parents instead.
“Funnily enough Christian Wade got called up for the Lions on the morning of the game,” recalls May. “And basically because my mum and dad were out I went out for dinner with them and all the other non-23 players went out on the piss, so I got the ‘go on you can play’ pretty much! It’s funny how it works out.
“I didn’t feel ashamed but I didn’t feel great because my parents were out there and it looked like I wasn’t going to get a game. What was probably quite a challenging couple of weeks finished on a really good note as my parents got to watch me play and I got my first cap. It all worked out in the end.”
His performance in Buenos Aires was not the most memorable. Indeed, May did not have the most auspicious start to international rugby. It took him eight matches to score his first try but when it arrived it did so in style – that unforgettable dash to the line in the third minute against the All Blacks at Twickenham in November 2014. And it is to his immense credit that six years later, playing in perhaps the most competitive position in England, May wins his 50th cap and is established as one of the leading wingers in the world.
Speak to anyone in the England camp and no one works harder to get themselves in the best possible shape than May. He came back from a long lay-off after knee surgery in January 2016 better than ever and while his move to Leicester from Gloucester in 2017 was controversial in that it exploited a contractual loophole that no longer exists, it was done with the intention of wringing every last drop out of his talent. He spends his summers in the US at Michael Johnson’s performance centre in Texas to work on his speed and it is all paying dividends.
“I’ve changed a lot, not just as a rugby player but as a person as well,” adds 29-year-old May, the top try-scorer in the England squad and sixth on their all-time list. “I’ve probably just tried to be a bit more serious. I have matured. I have become more focused certainly, maybe a little bit more introverted as the years have gone on. That is probably a result of the pressure I’ve put on myself. That’s just how I am at the moment, and how I want to be.
“It is chaotic and it’s challenging. You’re under the pressure you put yourself under, not just here but every week. Other players have been around and every week I’ve had to play my best so it has been challenging and tough but I’m grateful for that because it has made me the player that I am now and I’m proud of the player I’ve become and it has taken a lot of hard work.
“I’m sitting here now, I’ve got goosebumps because I’m so excited to go out there [against Australia] this weekend. When you get to 50 caps you can say that the hard work does pay off when it’s something consistent like that. So it’s something that I’m proud of.”