OITA, Japan (Reuters) - Jonny May will win his 50th cap when England play Australia in Saturday’s quarter-final, but things might have turned out differently if he had not stayed sober on the last weekend of the team’s tour of Argentina in 2013.
With the British and Irish Lions touring New Zealand, then-coach Stuart Lancaster had taken an experimental squad to South America. The uncapped May was overlooked for the first two matches and then failed to make the cut again for the third.
Disappointed and a little embarrassed, as he had invited his parents out to watch him play, he went for dinner with them the night before the final match.
“Then Christian Wade got called up for the Lions on the morning of the game,” May told journalists on Wednesday, explaining how he had become the last winger standing.
All other players not involved in the matchday had been out drinking. “So I got, ‘go on you can play’,” May said.
“Funny how it works out - I ended up starting, so a challenging week finished on a good note,” he said.
England won the game handsomely and by the following year’s Six Nations, May had forced his way onto the team, Lions included.
His first try did not arrive until his eighth match but he has now notched an impressive 25 going into what will be a proud and emotional day when he leads the team out in Oita on his 50th appearance - 49 of them as a starter.
“If you take a step back, you’d say it’s an awesome achievement, something I’m very proud of and that’s hopefully made my family proud,” May said.
“But it’s no time to take a step back at the moment, so I’ll be just focusing on how I can contribute to the team performance.”
May’s real points of difference are his pace and, according to his teammates and coaches, his relentless dedication to trying to improve his game.
In his early days, he was criticised for running too laterally, seeking gaps he would find at club level but less readily available in test matches. He has since eliminated this from his game.
There were also doubts whether he would ever regain his full speed after missing almost a year of action with a serious knee ligament injury. Instead, he came back just as fast, and much stronger. He has also developed into a brilliant and brave receiver of the high ball.
May is reluctant to accept that he works harder than anybody else on the squad, saying, “I really do focus on making sure I do everything I possibly can every day, and that’s been my mindset for a very long time.”
“I’m at the stage now where I’m not working harder but working smarter, just to keep developing myself.”
Looking back at his six years as an England player, he said: “I can’t say I’ve cut a corner, I’ve just stuck to it every day. I’ve had injuries, been picked, and not picked. I’ve had terrible games and good times, and that’s how it’s got to be, in terms of always striving to get better.”
(Updates to remove reference in second paragraph to May not being picked for first two games of 2013 Argentina tour (he played in the first game, a non-cap international))
Editing by Karishma Singh