Jonny May was at his imperious best as he inspired England to a comfortable win over Ireland
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When you have refined your sprinting skills at Michael Johnson’s Texan academy and can cover 100 metres in 10.71 seconds, it stands to reason that you are a nightmare to bring down in full flight. But what truly curdled Ireland’s blood here was not so much Jonny May’s electrifying speed as the accuracy of his chip-and-chase game, in which he judged the bounce of the ball to such perfection that with two kicks and one length-of-the field dash, he restored a faltering faith in England’s ability to entertain. One criticism of this team since their autumn return has been an over-reliance on kicking their way out of trouble, but not when the weapon is deployed as devastatingly as this.
Of late, Eddie Jones has dismissed debates about aesthetics. Eschewing any notion that England should win back admirers with the expansive rugby that propelled them to a World Cup final, he always argues that the ends justify the means. May is an adherent to this school of thought, recently claiming that the secret to becoming a great wing lay in mastering the basics. And yet he proved with his two tries that he could also deliver high-tariff flourishes when the occasion demanded it. His double to sink Ireland lifted him to joint second on the list of England’s all-time leading try-scorers, with 31. While Rory Underwood is far out in front on 49, May, still only 30 and with Jones’ support assured on the road to the 2023 World Cup, has time in his favour.
With his self-improvement philosophy and the constant augmenting of his talents, May fits the Jones template perfectly. “One of the most professional players I’ve seen,” as the head coach put it.
Likewise, there is nobody else on the international stage as accomplished at dialling up the pyrotechnics. May’s second try deserves to be inscribed in the canon of England solo tries, as glorious to behold up close as Chris Ashton’s greyhound-like bolt against Australia in 2010, which announced the swallow dive to the world. A masterstroke of pace, agility and dexterity, it was a showcase for the gifts that have made him such a destructive opponent. From the moment he was unleashed inside the Irish 22, he needed just 13.9 seconds to cut the men in green to ribbons.
For all that his Movember moustache called to mind a dubious Freddie Mercury tribute act, May appeared on a mission to show off every skill in the book. He comfortably won his aerial battle for the opening try against Hugo Keenan, an experiment at full-back that Ireland are unlikely to repeat. Even when Ireland briefly threatened a riposte, up popped May to drag down Keith Earls in his tracks. In attack and defence, he was a ubiquitous menace. To think, there had been concerns about his edge being blunted as he entered this Test without a try in five games. Here, he ignited the afterburners to score two in five minutes.
England coach Eddie Jones claims May won't reach his peak until he's 32 or 33
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The hope was that this collision would be the decisive contest of the Autumn Nations Cup, a thunderous meeting of Europe’s two finest teams. Ultimately, the gulf in standard was wider than this billing suggested, with England more than value for their fourth victory in a row over Ireland. Whether in discipline or invention, line-outs or breakdown work, England delivered unanswerable dominance in every department. The platform for such supremacy was laid, as usual, by Maro Itoje. When Jones first set eyes on Itoje in 2016, he was unsure what conclusions to draw, even touting him for a stint as openside flanker. Any doubts have long since been erased. Itoje was remorseless at the heart of England’s resistance, strengthening his credentials to lead the British and Irish Lions in South Africa.
Speaking of the Lions, Itoje’s confrontation with opposite number James Ryan had been billed as an audition for Warren Gatland’s second row next summer. As it turned out, there was no comparison, Itoje comfortably winning this head-to-head on all fronts, from carries to the set piece. The one worry about his development is that he has no elite-level club rugby this season, and no idea of when he will even play for relegated Saracens. The best-case scenario is a first Championship game on January 16, which hardly seems a fitting stage for this young colossus, or ideal preparation for his self-stated quest to be the “Lion King” come the first Test in Johannesburg.
Itoje took the official man-of-the-match award for England, but it was May’s contribution that would live longest in the memory. The one element missing from this team’s armoury in recent weeks has been flamboyance, the type of stylish flourish that can cut through the sterility of rugby in an empty stadium. May corrected that omission spectacularly, much to the delight of his difficult-to-please coach.
It is not just that Jones is struck by the rate of May’s progress since the 2015 World Cup, but that the wing has yet, in his view, to reach his peak. “He’ll be at his best when he’s 32, 33,” Jones promised.
For England’s prospects of global glory in 2023, when May turns 33, such an assurance augurs well. Jones had been desperate this autumn for a litmus test on his team’s strengths after a nine-month hiatus. So far, after three games and one Six Nations title, not to mention 92 points scored and just 12 conceded, the results confirm that even in the most harrowing of years, his England revolution remains intact.