As a 20-year-old playing in the Junior World Cup, Jonny May once scored a try despite having had his shorts and underwear pulled down by a desperate defender 15 metres from the line.
On Sunday at Twickenham it was May who pulled down the pants of a France team who were exposed at the rear again and again and again.
One try a minute in and then two more before half an hour was up. It was May Day come three months early and it was m’aider for a French defence sent backwards by England’s rumbling heavyweights before suffering death by a thousand kicks.
So often were the French back three turned by the boots of Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs, Henry Slade and Elliot Daly that when full-back Yoann Huget was replaced at half-time you wondered if it was down to twisted blood or basic despair.
There is supposed to be no space left in international rugby union any more. Blanket defences and endless short rumbles into a wall of defenders. Work another phase, make another few inches.
England looked at how France were set up and saw only green and pleasant land in behind them. Grubbers, garryowens, box-kicks. They came in all varieties, from all over the pitch, long and short, subtle and blindingly obvious.
May gobbled them all up. France had no answer to his speed and England had no need to try anything else. When you find a tactic that makes your opponents stumble you do it repeatedly until they are on their knees. The one time May took the ball standing still he threw three side-steps at Damian Penaud and went round him like a competitive dad schooling his kid.
May has always been charmingly unconventional. This is a man who filled some of the empty rehab hours after a serious cruciate ligament injury by getting stuck into Harry Potter colouring books, who owned a pet lizard as a kid and grew up playing football in his parents’ garden with Ed Sheeran, whose godmother was friends with his mother.
During that time out injured, a period when England won the Grand Slam in his absence, he also spent time at the performance centre in Texas run by multiple Olympic champion Michael Johnson. He was back there again last year despite having scored tries in each of England’s three Tests in South Africa, which tells you something about the hunger that goes with the eccentricity.
You sometimes worry how a character as disarming as May copes with the more robust parts of Eddie Jones character. May once wandered out of an England team meeting to use the toilet and returned with Jones telling his empty chair what he wanted from him in the next match.
He has spoken about being intimidated by his head coach, of being tested mentally and physically, of Jones making or breaking him, constantly demanding more.
On Sunday night Jones was as effusive as this cunning old stager allows himself to be.
“Jonny’s like when you go to the park and you see someone throwing a tennis ball and you see their dog running 100 miles an hour to bring it back.
“He’s really worked hard at his game. He’s one of the hardest working men in our team. His improvement is all due to his desire to want to be the best.”
Jones could afford to look content. England’s development since they lost the return fixture in Paris a year ago, since they staggered into the autumn on a run of five defeats in six, threatens to get their supporters seriously excited not only about this Six Nations but in the World Cup beyond.
There were only six men in the XV that began on Sunday that started in Paris, and there are fine players not involved in this match-day squad: Anthony Watson, Danny Care and Joe Cokanasiga; the injured Dylan Hartley and Maro Itoje; Ben Te’o, who scored a critical try in this fixture two years ago; Jonathan Joseph, the last man before May to score a hat-trick of tries for England.
Neither Tom Curry nor Mark Wilson were first-choice in the back row at the start of November. Against France Curry made 19 tackles and Wilson only one less. There is a strength in depth across this England team to make other northern hemisphere teams green with jealousy and black and blue on the pitch.
Scoring 30 points in the first 40 minutes answered the question of whether they could back up the win over Ireland a week ago. The second 40 may have seen a flattening of the graph but the job was done, and once again the enjoyment was obvious in much the players did.
This England team is nasty in all the right places and comes at you in ways you expect and ways you do not. The front row punch holes in the loose and the defence knocks you backwards. When Courtney Lawes put dumper-truck Mathieu Bastareaud in reverse it drew almost as loud a cheer as May’s third try.
France coach Jacques Brunel has a default expression as lugubrious as Geoffrey Palmer. In the aftermath of this evisceration, facing down a run of eight defeats in their last nine, his team having shipped 68 points in their last 120 minutes of rugby, he looked affronted by what he had witnessed and baffled by what to do about it.
It is routine in the build-up to their games to ask which France team is going to turn up, a wistful and entirely inaccurate reference to the muscle up front married flair out wide that is supposed to define them.
But France, the last side to win back-to-back Grand Slams in this storied tournament, are now as predictable as the London rain. They haven’t finished higher than third in the Six Nations in eight years. They are all brave new dawns and dark nights of the soul.
The bad news for Brunel is that he will have to do this all over again this autumn, where the two sides meet in the group stages in Japan.
“We felt we left 15 to 20 points in the field,” said Jones, ominously. “There’s a lot more to come from this team.”
|Last six England players to score Six Nations hat-tricks|
|Jonny May||France (H)||10 February, 2019|
|Jonathan Joseph||Scotland (H)||11 March, 2017|
|Jonathan Joseph||Italy (A)||14 February, 2016|
|Chris Ashton||Italy (H)||12 February, 2011|
|Jamie Noon||Scotland (H)||19 March, 2005|
|Mark Cueto||Italy (H)||12 March, 2005|