JIMMY CAGNEY ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A SONG AND DANCE MAN; MICHAEL JORDAN STILL DREAMS OF WINNING THE US MASTERS; AMY POEHLER’S ONE GREAT, UNFULFILLED AMBITION IS TO DO A PERIOD DRAMA. INDEED THE FLIP SIDE OF ANY ACTOR OR ATHLETE IS OFTEN MUCH THE MORE INTERESTING STORY.
There is little in life that’s as serious as a comedian. Take Jonny May, famously loved and lampooned by his team-mates for his burlesque personality yet – less famously – probably the most grimly professional athlete in English rugby. The trouble is, it’s only the comedy that gets the coverage.
So – as Ben Youngs once disloyally, but gleefully, revealed – here’s a man who makes random chicken noises; a man who once listened to the soundtrack to Disney’s ‘Frozen’ on the team bus and who was once reported to have said, when asked which three famous people he’d invite round for dinner: ‘Barack Obama, because I think he knows a lot of stuff we don’t know; Beyonce, because she could sing while we eat … and Lady Gaga; I don’t know why her. I was just thinking of singers and she came to mind.’ Thus does a person acquire a stereotype.
For example, when he wrecked his knee two years ago and spent months in morbid rehabilitation, the story was he’d bought himself a Harry Potter colouring book and a box of wax crayons to while away the time. Which was true. But what wasn’t reported quite so loudly was that, along with the Harry Potter colouring book and the box of wax crayons, he’d also bought – out of his own pocket – four thousand quids’ worth of various cutting edge contraptions to ice and compress the joint – he did list them all for me but they were difficult to spell and I lost track – and thereby help the heal and slash his recovery time.
Indeed in all, he spent twelve hours a day treating his knee with his ruinously expensive gadgets and gizmos which meant he recovered from an ACL, PCL and lateral ligament reconstruction so quickly and so completely that within ten months he was playing for England and running even faster than he’d done before. The headline, though, went to the Harry Potter colouring book and the box of wax crayons.
‘I suppose people just want to latch onto what’s different and funny really,’ he says. ‘But there is another side to me as well that just wants to be the best I can be. That was the thinking with the move from Gloucester to Leicester. I felt I was happy to an extent about what I’d achieved at Kingsholm but I still felt I’d underachieved as well. I knew I had more in me, I wanted to put myself under pressure and I needed a move to help me to do that.’
Certainly Jonny May is never going to die wondering and that’s not just a reference to his leap to Leicester, a move which took balls of cast iron and which, so far, is paying off in spades. But then that’s him; he’s always recognized – if you like – that explorers have to be prepared to die lost.
‘He told me a story once about a four hundred metres race at his school’s Sports Day,’ says George Ford. ‘When the gun went off, he turned round and started running the other way. So the other seven guys are going in one direction – the right way round the track – and he’s running the stagger and the entire lap backwards and he still won by ten seconds. That’s the kind of guy he is.’
Did we mention the raw speed? He did a run out on the Twickenham turf a week or so ago – he was testing a tight hamstring – and he went through the gun at 10.49m/s in a fifty-metre shuttle. Apparently, if he could replicate that over one hundred metres – he couldn’t but if he could – he’d clock 9.53secs and shave 0.05secs off Usain Bolt’s world record. ‘I was gobsmacked that I did that really,’ he says. ‘But there’s no way I’m as fast as Bolt. Besides sprinting is a totally different discipline. Rugby’s all about acceleration not sustaining speed over a longer distance.’
But May isn’t just Forrest Gump in a jockstrap. Put it this way, if you asked the England team to spend a day doing a decathlon, he’d be the odds-on favourite to take the gold medal. ‘Well I used to do pole-vaulting, which’d be a help, I suppose,’ he says, ‘Bit of jumping. And I’ve had a heavy athletics background which has taught me a lot. So for instance I spend at least three or four times as much time warming up and warming down as I do on the training pitch. It’s almost like an OCD routine … I’ve always done stretching from my teenage years. The more you train, the more you need to look after your body and respect it.’
Those who know him know exactly how committed he is. ‘He’s a 24/7 athlete,’ says Dylan Hartley. The Boss concurs. ‘He trains probably harder than any other player’, says Eddie Jones. And this is by no means a recent thing. When England were preparing for the last World Cup, Stuart Lancaster repeatedly singled out May as being the player who was always ‘training the house down’. Which is, presumably, where all the raw strength comes from. Indeed, he once scored a try at Twickenham by running straight through the foursquare Tommy Bowe. He looked like a cross between a Ferrari and a Sherman tank.
But however seriously comedians want to be taken – should be taken – they’re still comedians, which is what makes interviewing Jonny May one of rugby’s great unalloyed pleasures. Exhibit ‘A’ …
GS: So are you very competitive, Jonny? If we played ‘Ludo’ right now and I won, would that tick you off?
JM: (frowning) I don’t even know what ‘Ludo’ is.
GS: Seriously, you’ve not heard of ‘Ludo’?
JM: (genuinely puzzled) Is that the one where you have to guess who killed who?
GS: That’s ‘Cluedo’.
GS: But we can play that instead. The point being, would you be ticked off if you lost?
JM: (now a little flummoxed) Um, well, I wouldn’t really care about a game of ‘Cluedo’, no. But something I care about and I invest a lot of time and trouble in – which is rugby not ‘Cluedo’ – yes, I’d care about that.
Clearly he’s a natural eccentric. Have you ever met anyone anywhere who can’t tell their ‘Ludo’ from their ‘Cluedo’? But there are times too when fate seems to single him out. Here, for example, is Exhibit ‘B’. Try to imagine this happening to Owen Farrell …
GS: So prior to this autumn you’d never scored against Australia?
JM: No, although I did score against them in the U20s. But I got my shorts pulled down.
JM: I got my shorts pulled down.
GS: By whom?
JM: I don’t know.
GS: You mean by one of your team-mates?
JM: No, a covering defender. An Australian.
GS: What he tried to tackle you and he pulled your shorts down?
GS: What, all the way down?
GS: So your bum was hanging out?
GS: That’s not good.
GS: So how difficult is it to score a try when your bum’s hanging out?
JM: Yeah, well, in the moment, you’re not really thinking about your bum hanging out. Your instinct’s just telling you to get over the try line.’
Instinct is a big word with Jonny May; recognizing it, trusting it and backing it. You don’t score the kind of drop-your-chips try he scored against New Zealand at Twickenham three years ago – his first for England – with flat-out speed alone. Obviously, it helps but you need the nuts to trust it and the instinct to know when to back it. It’s another of May’s enduring strengths. ‘Sometimes you’re better when your mind’s blank’, he says. ‘And that’s how I want to play; looking for work, trying to get my hands on the ball and just play instinctively.’
But that can come at a cost. Certainly there’ve been times in his career when his unpredictable, have-a-go-Henry, offbeat, unconventional style has got him picked for teams and other occasions when that same unpredictable, have-a-go-Henry, offbeat, unconventional style has got him left out. It’s unusual – in any walk of life – to find people sticking your pluses in the minus column but he’s got used to it.
‘I think when I came on the scene I made lots of mistakes,’ he says, ‘and I could do one good thing and one bad thing and once you get labeled with that it’s quite hard to shake off. But I think I’ve developed an all round game; yes, I want that speed and unpredictability to be my strength but the all-round game is hugely important as well.’
Certainly Eddie Jones recognises the value of the maverick May, perhaps because it takes one to know one. ‘I’d just like to spend one day inside Jonny’s head,’ says England’s Head Coach. ‘I’ve got no idea how it’d be but I don’t think he has either and that’s what great and that’s why we love him. He’s got a few quirky habits that the players love but he’s such a dedicated, disciplined player. And he’s himself. He doesn’t try to pretend to be anyone else but himself.’
Ah, yes. The quirky habits. Where do we start? To the extent that each and every comedian is an anarchist at heart, Jonny May lives a disordered almost deranged life, so much so that you wonder what on earth the compulsively neat George Ford was doing when he offered Jonny NoHouse the run off his sofa when he first arrived in Leicester. Not since Neil Simon’s ‘The Odd Couple’ opened on Broadway in 1965 have there been two less likely bedfellows.
GF: We’d come home from training and he’d just slob out all over the sofa.
JM: He accused me of disrespecting his sofa.
GF: The lounge was always a mess; he never washed up.
JM: He’s got this bloody wireless hoover. He loves it. He’s got about three or four different hoovers and they’re on all the time.
GF: He spilt duck sauce all over the rug.
JM: That was a disaster. He was furious.
GF: It was a brand new, suede, light blue rug.
JM: I got some ‘Vanish’ and scrubbed it. It looked like two patches of piss.
GF: It was a bit of a drama.
JM: In hindsight I should have been doing less scrubbing and more dabbing. I gave him a load of cash. It was a costly mistake.
GF: I had to kick him out.
JM: It was always the plan I’d go after a while.
GF: He’s a good lad. But there are times when you need a bit of space.
JM: We’re good mates but we’re different. I think we bring the best out of each other.
But, let’s be honest, it’s this blend of personalities – be they domestic terrorists or neat freaks – that makes a team tick. If the England dressing room were full of fifteen Owen Farrells staring holes in the walls, it wouldn’t work. You need your Jonny Mays, a man who recently suggested to his England team-mate, Ben Te’o, that they should go back-packing together in North Korea. Which brings us to Exhibit ‘C’…
GS: I heard once that you’d given someone a rabbit hutch as a present in a Secret Santa?
JM: (emphatically) No.
GS: Or was it a rabbit?
JM: (defensively) It was a hamster.
GS: You gave someone a hamster in a Secret Santa?
JM: Yes, but someone else gave me a chicken.
GS: What, frozen or live?
JM: No, a real one. You see, this is the problem; I can’t do an interview without it coming back to something ridiculous like this.
GS: So what did you do with the chicken?
JM: I gave it to Charlie Sharples because he had two already and he put it in with his. I didn’t have a chicken hutch or whatever and he was happy because he had an extra egg a day. And then he moved house and gave the chicken to his Mum. I don’t know what happened after that because I don’t know how long chickens live.
GS: Dogs are seven years to one.
JM: Yes, but I don’t know what chicken years are.
Back in the real world, it’s already been another good November for May. His first score against Australia last weekend – all bristle, bustle, and belligerence – means he’s now scored ten tries for England, nine of them at Twickenham and eight of them in the autumn – ‘I’ve no idea why that is; to be honest, I didn’t even know that’. Plus he’s just married Sophie, the girl he first met in primary school – ‘we met up again at college and she said she didn’t remember me; I think she was playing hard to get’ – and finally swapped George Ford’s sofa for a home of his own in genteel Market Harborough.
What else can I tell you? He plays the drums, he hates litter-louts, heights, flying and social media and says the silliest thing he ever bought was a pet lizard; ‘it was good for thirty seconds but then I got bored. I had to feed it crickets plus it tried to bite my hand off.’ And he’s also written an England team song, although apparently this is a secret, not that Jonny’s very good at keeping secrets. Exhibit ‘D’ …
GS: I’m told it’s an ‘a capella’ number. Is that right?
JM: (mysteriously) That’d be sensitive information on the England team so I can’t disclose that.
GS: So you can’t even confirm the song’s existence?
GS: What because you’re embarrassed about the tune or…?
JM: No, not embarrassed. It’s just our song.
GS: So it does exist, then?
JM: (long pause) I can’t talk about it.
GS: But you did write it?
JM: (interminable pause) Yes. But there were a few people who helped.
GS: So did you write the lyrics or the music or both?
JM: (Even more interminable pause) A bit of all of it, I guess.
GS: Don’t be too shy. There could be royalties at stake here.
GS: But you’re not going to tell me anything about it?
JM: That’s it.
Look, whatever he does to your suede, light blue rug or however many hamsters he gives you for Christmas, how can you not help but love Jonny May? Few sportsmen anywhere work this hard to squeeze every last drop of juice out of their orange and even fewer offer such a refreshing splash of non-conformity in a world where genuine characters are fast becoming extinct. No question he’s on the road less travelled by. And, no question, it’s making all the difference.
24 NOVEMBER 2107