Jonny May: ‘I’ve got a finish line in sight – probably the World Cup’

“To be completely honest with you mate, I don’t,” answers Jonny May when asked, at the end of a conversation about rugby and the art of wing play, how he relaxes away from the game. “I don’t really switch off. I’m on edge all the time, because I’m challenging myself. You’ve got to become comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Professional sport is littered with cliche. Athletes trot out hackneyed lines about giving 110% in training, a thirst for improvement, taking responsibility, a quest for self-discovery. These feature prominently on the average sportsperson’s CV. Spend some time speaking to Gloucester and England’s May, though, and you begin to understand the definition of the term “single-minded”. He really means it, and he really lives it.

The prolific wing, second on England’s men’s all-time try-scorers’ list with 33 in 66 matches, endured a difficult summer. Having long dreamed of being a British & Irish Lion he was overlooked by Warren Gatland for the South Africa tour. A late-season injury did not help, but neither did the emergence of players such as his clubmate Louis Rees-Zammit. May then suffered a debilitating case of Covid-19. He experienced a profound low point, which also caused him to ponder his future as a 31-year-old who relies on pace and elusiveness in a relentlessly attritional sport.

“This summer was different,” says May. “It was time to step back, run things through mentally, clear my head, lick my wounds. At this stage of my career, it was decision time. You can either go all in, go for it, or wind down a bit. And I don’t want to wind down yet. I appreciate where I am in the ‘race’ of my career: I’ve sort of got a finish line in sight, and it probably would be the World Cup.”

Having committed himself until that 2023 tournament in France, the England coach, Eddie Jones, is in no mood to wind down either. Although May was included in this week’s 45-man training squad he is taking nothing for granted. “I’m fully aware that it’s not my spot any more,” he says. But Jones clearly remains an admirer and the player’s target of 2023 is surely welcomed, particularly with the new attack coach, Martin Gleeson, vowing to get the team playing with width and flair.

“We talked about it being a new England,” May says of the recent get-together. “We appreciated, in camp, there were some things old England did brilliantly: set piece, brutal and destructive defence … that old England did some bloody good stuff. But there’s a new England that we need to find, and need to create, to get ready for the next World Cup.”

Suggest that England’s attacking game failed to click recently and May’s answer is as emphatic as it is candid. “Yeah, 100%, that’s fair. We created a game plan and executed it. Where we were very strong was our defence … our kicking game, our pressure game, and that got us so far … but we probably came a little bit unstuck [in attack].

“‘Glees’ has come in now, a new set of eyes, new set of ideas. I was really impressed with him. I sat down with him and he said what I’ve done for England over the past period of time is chase kicks. That’s been brilliant for the team … but there are some opportunities now to hopefully move the ball into space a bit more: whether that’s run, kick or pass.”

The basis of May’s summer decision to go all in, he says, is not just about maintaining his current standards. He believes he can get better and faster. “If I felt myself getting slower, I’d just ring Eddie and say: ‘Listen, I’m not going to do it any more.’

“I don’t want to play for England unless I’m getting better and that means across departments. If I’m not physically, mentally, tactically and technically improving, I don’t want to be there. For me, playing for England is about raising the standard. I am confident I can do that.”

Jones has said May’s attitude is an example to other players, and during our Zoom chat, his total commitment to physical conditioning is abundantly clear. “Right at the forefront of everything I do is my recovery and my resilience. And to be honest, I’m pretty good at that,” May says, smiling. “The longer I can stay healthy, the longer I can keep pushing it.

“Look at [Novak] Djokovic in tennis, what [Cristiano] Ronaldo’s done in football … I could name you rugby players from the past who’ve played consistently well into their 30s: look at Shane Williams, Josh Lewsey, going right back to Rory Underwood … Jason Robinson was at a World Cup at 33.”

Gloucester, meanwhile, have endured a disappointing start in the Premiership, losing away against Northampton before being narrowly beaten by Leicester at Kingsholm in a high-scoring and entertaining encounter. Next up is a trip to Worcester on Saturday and May is certain that winning rugby is not far away.

“To use a golf analogy, we’re getting plenty of birdies, but we’re still killing ourselves with a couple of double bogeys,” he says. “We just need to cut those out and then I’m sure – very sure – that we’ll start winning some games.”

With a Lions tour perhaps now out of reach, is aiming for Underwood’s England record of 49 tries his motivation? “How many tries do I need? Twenty tries or something? I mean … maybe? You can never say never.”

Another 17 would take May past Underwood. If he stays fit to the World Cup and beyond, why not? “If I get the opportunity to play for England again, brilliant, but I’ve got to earn that right,” May insists.

“Sometimes things don’t work out. But I can look myself in the mirror and say: ‘I’ve got no regrets in terms of how hard I’ve worked.’ And that will be my philosophy going to the next World Cup. If I burn out, or if I don’t make it, or if I come unstuck, or something happens … it won’t be for a lack of effort.”