It took Jonny May eight international appearances to score his first England try: a breath-taking solo effort against the All Blacks five years ago. England went on to lose that match but it was very much the announcement of May’s arrival at Test level.
The wing would go on to add five more tries by the end of 2015, which ended with a whimper in the form of England’s humiliating pool-stage exit from their own World Cup. In the four years since Eddie Jones took charge of the national team, May has scored 18 tries in 28 matches – 27 of which have all been starts - which included a phenomenal run over the past year-and-a-half of 14 in 15 games. Simply put, May heads into the Rugby World Cup with one of the most dangerous records in the game.
If the 29-year-old can maintain that try-rate over the next three years at an average of 10 Tests a year, he has a realistic chance of taking down Rory Underwood’s ridiculous all-time record of 49 tries in 85 appearances, the most scored by any Englishman in the amateur or professional era.
But personal accolades don’t really matter to May – at least not any more. One thing that Jones has implemented since taking the reins is the mantra that the team comes first, no matter what, and May is better than most in not only projecting this philosophy but explaining how a shift in his own mentality has helped him to buy into it.
“The message from when Eddie has come in is that he will pick a team to beat that opposition on that day and everyone has a role,” May said. “If you are not involved then you are helping the team prepare, if you are a finisher you are going to finish. It is not ‘who is better than who’. We are not about that on this team. We are about ‘okay this is the team for that day’ and this is the team that we need to prepare to win, no matter what your role is.”
Which brings us to talk of the top try-scorer award. A walk back through time lists the who’s who of try-scoring when it comes to the World Cup, with Bryan Habana, Jonah Lomu, John Kirwan and David Campese all wings to have won the award. Any player who scores tries for a living, as May does, would love to get their hands on such a gong, given it has a direct correlation to a team’s performance. Right?
“That is a terrible trap to fall into, to go into a game wanting to score a try or trying to score a try,” he adds. “Of course scoring a try for a winger is the cherry on top of the cake, but we have got so many good players, I couldn’t care if I don’t score a try in the whole tournament. We just need to win every game.
“People are going to score tries if we just stick to doing our job. For me, I go into a game focusing on my defence, my kick-chase, my high ball. Those are the things I am guaranteed to get in a game. If the opportunity comes to score a try, that is my role in that moment for the team. But to go into games thinking about wanting to do that? That is not how Test match rugby works.”
The Leicester Tigers back is right to talk up his teammates, given this is one of the most attacking squads England have sent to a World Cup since at least 2003, and possibly even beyond. May is joined on the wing by Anthony Watson, who is just a shade slower than May and has gone about returning to the level that earned him a British and Irish Lions Test spot since coming back from serious injury, as well as the powerful Joe Cokanasiga, workhorse Jack Nowell and unheralded Ruaridh McConnochie. Throw full-back Elliot Daly into the mix too, and England boast one of the most potent groups of outside backs in Japan.
That batch of speed, strength and ability will line up outside the likes of Manu Tuilagi, Billy Vunipola and Maro Itoje, a trio among the very best in their positions on the planet, which gives England something they have lacked for 16 years: dangerous threats throughout the entire team.
“It is nothing like I have ever been a part of,” said May. “I look around the room and the teammates and the talent we have, and depth as well, for me the belief is genuine that we can beat anybody if we are at our best and I genuinely believe we will peak at this World Cup.
“Nobody needs to pull a rabbit out of the hat because the talent is so good that people just doing their jobs is going to be enough and that is a great position to be in. We don’t need to force anything, just go out there and play a simple game because something will happen eventually because we have great players and a great team.
“I don’t want to come across as arrogant because I am not, but I generally just can’t talk up my teammates enough in terms of we have got players who can take the ball to the line and make decisions, we have got players who can run over people, we have got speed, we have got left foot options.”
May could be forgiven if he said something similar before 2015, but there is a notable difference in the belief of these players that should prevent the same disappointment unfolding once again. It resides in the belief they have not in themselves, but in those around them, and May is not the first, nor will he be the last, to talk up his teammates over the next six weeks.