Six Nations: Breaking down the brilliance of Jonny May as England outsmart France in style
The England wing stole the headlines with a 29-minute hat-trick, but beneath the glory lies a game plan that shows why he is becoming one of the best finishers in the world
There was an accurate phrase muttered by the legendary French scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili during England’s rout of France on Sunday that summed up the difference between the two sides.
“We are driving a car, they are driving a Formula One.”
The big problem for France was that Yachvili’s comment came when the score was only 8-3 in the home side’s favour. 60 minutes later the size of the gulf between the two sides had been brutally exposed by another genius game plan from Eddie Jones, Scott Wisemantel and their chief lieutenants Owen Farrell, Henry Slade and Elliot Daly.
Detailed pre-match analysis will have revealed France’s preference to defend with 14 men in the line. At times on Sunday it became 15 as time and time again they were left with no one at home, with either Yoann Huget or Damian Penaud caught out of position and Morgan Parra making a mess of the scrum-half’s sweeper role.
But as Jones explained afterwards, the pinpoint kicking is only half of the equation.
“Owen's got a good sense of the game, but your kicks are only as good as your chases,” he explained.
Farrell, sat next to him, was nodding in agreement, and somewhere below in the England changing room hopefully Jonny May was enjoying a well-deserved beer. Not because he scored a 29-minute hat-trick, and not because his 22 test tries puts him joint-seventh on England’s all-time list alongside Josh Lewsey. No, it was because when he chases every single kick, he puts the fear of God into his opponents in the back three.
“Some of the chasing today was outstanding,” Jones added. “Jonny May's like when you go to the park and you see someone with a tennis ball and they throw it, the dog runs 100mph and chases it and brings it back. He does that pretty well.
“He's really worked hard on his game. There's a few of them... Owen and George [Ford] work very hard at their craft and Jonny May is one of the hardest working guys in our team. He works hard at his high-ball catching, works hard at his chasing, works hard at his physical conditioning. His improvement is all due to his desire to be the best and be part of a team that wants to be the best.
“His development as a winger has come through his own hard work. He works very hard on being quick and very hard at being repeatedly quick. He doesn't just run fast once, he keeps repeating it.”
The sight of May haring up-field inspires those around him to join the charge, sensing an opportunity to trap players deep in their own territory or, as in France’s case, expose the areas that have been left threadbare.
But it also instils a fear among the opposition that causes them to lose their positioning, sense of direction and decision-making, just as what happened with Huget, Penaud and Gael Fickou. That’s the impact of having lightning speed on the wing, the likes that New Zealand have benefitted from since what feels like the dawn of time.
“It outs defenders in doubt,” adds Jones. “Will he take them on the outside, so they can't afford to drop back too deep? It makes it hard to cover that space at the back.”
Two years ago May spoke about wanting to become not just the fastest wing in world rugby but also the best, the complete package so to speak. His record is nearing a try every other game, but the first 30 of his caps can almost be disregarded given the stop-start nature to his early international career. Instead, look at his most recent 12 appearances since this time last year and you’ll see one of the best strike-rates in world rugby: 12 tries.
To put that into comparison, Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale has nine tries in 11, New Zealand’s Rieko Ioane has 11 in 11. A reason for that is not just the work that May is putting into every part of his game, but also the ways that he is thinking about it. Who knows, he may stake claim to being the smartest wing in world rugby, too.
“Not just France, but every team wants to have an aggressive defence and get off the line through the field with 14 men in the frontline,” May said. “The game is always changing. You don’t know where the space is going to be.
“It seems to be that there’s a bit of space in the backfield at the moment and we want to be a team that takes the right option and finds the space. At the start of the game, it was in the backfield and we kept putting the ball through because it was still there. We did not want to get bored of doing the right thing. That’s credit to the team and everyone doing their role.”
It’ll be quite the contest when he goes up against George North in two weeks’ time, with the Welshman arguably the most consistent finisher in the game over the last decade. But if May wins that battle, don’t expect him to take the plaudits himself in the slightest. “My job is to put the ball down over the line,” he admits. “It is probably the easiest job when the guys inside me are doing a brilliant job.”
Speed, work ethic, brains and humility. Maybe he does have it all.