Jonny May: England star believes adaptability is critical in the modern game

James While
England's Jonny May looks on during a Test match

England’s flying winger Jonny May is finally back in camp after a frustrating summer in Australia where his troublesome knee, combined with Covid, put an end to his tour.

Planet Rugby’s James While caught up with May, and the conversation started with the admiration of the style of Premiership Rugby being played this season.

“Yes, the Premiership is really exciting, very exciting with loads of tries and so on,” May said.

“There’s lots of variables in play as to why that’s happening – normally you can see this at the start of the season when the weather’s good, but also lots of yellow cards and law changes giving teams lots of chances to play against sides with lesser numbers.

“But maybe refs are feeling the need to level it up a bit. When one team is up, we’re seeing momentum swings. I am not bad-mouthing referees, but when discipline has gone, and teams are 20 or so points up, does that influence refs?

“Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but it’s really exciting to see. It’s almost like you have to win the game twice now because 20-point leads aren’t enough. At home, especially with even a 14-point lead, you’re thinking that’s game done, but now that simply doesn’t seem to be the case.

Mentorship

When Planet Rugby spoke to May at the PRL launch, the wing discussed his role as a senior figure bringing the young players on. Some of the English Premiership wings are on fire right now, and May is delighted at the progress of some of his young cohorts.

“Yeah, it’s really where you want to see the game go isn’t it? There’s really a new wave of guys coming through and you’d hope that it’s now their responsibility to move the game forward and raise the bar and it’s now my job to compete with those guys.

“I wouldn’t want to patronise them and tell them this is the way to play the game. But I certainly think bouncing ideas off each other and competing with each other, it’s all about moving the team forward or the game forward and ultimately, trying to be better yourself. It’s a really exciting group to be part of in that regard.”

Adaptability is essential

Eddie Jones’ recent briefings have outlined the need to be adaptable. May suggested that the conversations between the three-quarters and back three players are now about that adaptability and perhaps the ‘in-game’ need to move between positions.

“I’ve caught up with Eddie once since coming back. When he’s in the Gloucestershire area, he catches up with me from time to time and we have a brief chat – they’re normally pretty short meetings with Eddie, but he was positive enough. And that was it, really, he just wants me to crack on and keep working hard on my game.

“Obviously, I’m grateful to still be a part of this and that Eddie still wants to give me a go. I’m very grateful for that but I also want to prove myself again. I don’t just want to be here for any other reason than for being the best I can be and playing well and I haven’t done that for a while.

“Every player in every team is seeing that need to be adaptable. We talk about the variables in rugby and there’s so many of them, aren’t there? Whether that’s off-field stuff like Covid-19 or weather or referee’s decisions, injuries within your team or tactical stuff; what we’re saying is it’s now no longer sufficient to say that ‘this team does this or that team does that” and that’s what we’re going to face at the weekend, but that now doesn’t really happen.

“We obviously practice our first few moves, but then we are considering ‘what if you can’t win a lineout? What happens if a team isn’t kicking long but now is kicking it short? You can only prepare so much in a week and it’s probably better to focus on your own game rather than trying to get a leg up and thinking this is what we MIGHT face at the weekend, because that doesn’t really happen now. Players and teams need to be developing their games and look to become an adaptable team, almost more problem solving now.

“I haven’t trained too much here yet but it’s certainly at Gloucester now, we’re starting to train with certain scenarios. “OK, right, this team has a scrum here, three points here, this guy has got a yellow card”, we’ve done little bits of it here.

“But I do think teams are starting to train like that (with reduced numbers) rather than 15 on 15 or units. We’re now training with one team having the ball and the story or the scenario as well as that. In the past you’d just train 15 on 15 and do what you’re doing but now there’s a story going on and you have to be aware of what’s going on when you’re training as well because that’s such an important part,” concluded May.

Tight competition

With the Rugby Championship throwing up many surprises this season, the closeness of the World’s top eight or nine teams has never been tighter. May believes that the 2023 Rugby World Cup is likely to be one of the most closely contested in recent years and that no game can be taken for granted.

“Certainly we’ve discussed this as a group even while we’ve been in camp this last 24 hours. If you look at the past two World Cups, you’ve probably had New Zealand top of the tree by a fair bit and then a small group underneath them who can win, and then beneath that quite a big drop-off.

“Now it seems like you’ve got a fairly big group at the top. I think Eddie’s stat was New Zealand were a 92 per cent winning team in previous years and now France are the top with only a 73 percent winning record, and beneath that there’s a huge group of tight sides.

“It’s not just in the international game, I think certainly in the Premiership as well – any team can win on any day. So it makes for a good spectacle and very tight, fine margins on the day. You’ve got to be a smart team that can adapt and read the understanding of the game. Anywhere really you can pick up a per cent or two because it’s going to come to the wire on all these games really.”

“Looking ahead to November, Argentina are very much in that close group as well now. Japan will be tough. Each game is about preparing, being the best team you can be, taking it one game at a time and learning. Obviously, with Eddie and this group, everything we do now is about learning and gearing up towards that World Cup.

“I’m still a student of the game. I don’t go a week without learning something or recognising patterns within the game and sharpening up and I don’t think you can ever stop learning. If I can stay healthy and keep learning, keep working hard I’m certainly very much looking forward to playing.”

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