Rugby World brings the England wingers together to talk tries, teams and targets

When Rory Underwood met Jonny May

Like any typical British conversation, talk has turned to the weather. “Every time I used to wake up at the Petersham Hotel in Richmond, I just prayed it wasn’t raining, otherwise it would be a forward game,” says Rory Underwood of his match-day memories with England.

There is also chat about Underwood’s Zoom background – displays of the shirts and caps from his career. Current England wing Jonny May’s collection of shirts is still in bags, but: “My first cap is framed with my shirt. My parents have that.”

With 49, Underwood has led the way as England men’s record try-scorer since retiring 25 years ago. May is a way behind on 33 tries but he is still closer than anyone has got before. We brought the two together to compare notes…

When Rory Underwood met Jonny May

What’s it like to score a try? Is it an addictive feeling?

Rory Underwood: Crikey, both of us, we love scoring tries. You can tell with Jonny. You’re a much more expressive generation nowadays than we ever were; it was a very polite handshake in our day. But it doesn’t detract from the enjoyment you get from scoring tries, especially at Twickenham when you get the crowd roaring, it’s fantastic.

People ask what I miss most about the game. My first answer is the camaraderie of the team you’re playing with at the time. But I must admit scoring the tries is a great feeling and I miss that. Definitely.

Jonny May: I’d agree with that. The tries are the rewards I guess, opportunities we get to take, so they justify the hard work. They are the game giving back to you for all the other stuff we go through. They’re great moments, the tries.

But like Rory says, the main thing is remembering it’s a team game. I build my game around doing selfless things for the team first, but of course I’m over the moon when I do get a try because that’s a nice moment to experience.

Is it weird right now with no crowds?

JM: It is strange but we’ve adapted. Once we’re out there playing it almost feels like a new normal. The weirdest bit is the drive in, the empty streets. The anthem is strange but when we’re in the game we’re just cracking on.

RU: I remember playing in front of 65-70,000 against Wales one weekend and the following weekend I played for the RAF against the Navy at Twickenham in front of 650 people! I’ve played many, many times at Twickenham for the Air Force against the Army or Navy, so I’ve played in front of hundreds of people as opposed to tens of thousands.

As Jonny says, especially as these guys are professionals now, once you get into the game you just focus on the game. Even if you’ve got 82,000 people there, there are times you’re so zoned in you don’t even know you’ve got a crowd there. Then there are other times you come out of that, when there’s a break in play, an injury or whatever, then that’s when you hear the crowd.

Jonny’s not played at Twickenham in the old stadium. When I first played, the nearest spectator was about two or three metres away from you. They were sat down there and as you were stood on the touchline they would speak to you. They’d just try to call your name out, ask how it’s going, just have a general chat. Whereas now they’re ten, 15, 20 yards away from the pitch.

Do you work on finishing?

RU: The correct answer is Jonny has to work on it as he’s a professional!

JM: Essentially it’s putting the ball down, isn’t it? So it’s not something you need to overthink or practise. For me, it’s a bit like footwork or taking on defenders, it’s an instinctive skill that you get enough exposure to in training and playing. It’s just a natural instinctive thing for me.

There are certainly lots of parts of the game I need to practise, for instance kicking, basic catch-pass, high-ball stuff, the tackle… Those skills you can practise and refine, but I don’t want to think too much about finishing, I just want to be doing that instinctively.

RU: I’m the same. I can honestly say I never ever practised it, ever. As Jonny says, you’re just trying to do everything you can to get the ball over the line.

I was going to ask you, Jonny, if you were trying to take flying lessons after that try of yours (against Italy) – crikey!

JM: To be fair that is the one bit of finishing we have messed around with, kind of practised. I remember the last World Cup camp we got the crash mats out. A lot of the rugby league players are doing that, on their fifth set if they’re five metres out they will just give it to the winger and it’s a tough thing to defend if you jump. You can’t really stop it if you execute it well.

RU: You do see a lot of that in the NRL. It’s fantastic rugby league down there and the number of tries you see in the corner, just squeezing in…

JM: That’s a common thing, weekly they’re doing that. Their wingers get it on the fifth; it’s your opportunity to have a free shot really because the ball is going to the other team after that anyway, so why not have a go at it.

Related: How to score a wonder try – the league skill flying into union

You both took a while to find your try-scoring groove at Test level. Does it take time to adapt?

RU: No. I started playing in a very average England team basically. If we won both home games (in the Five Nations) it was deemed to be quite a good season. It wasn’t until 1987-88 when Geoff Cooke came in and took over as coach that things started to change really, so I scored four tries in my first four years I think it was.

Rory Underwood breaks for Leicester in 1995 (Allsport/Getty Images)

JM: If you look at the statistics for me, it’s a try every two games, so I really do see it as a flip of a coin kind of thing. Like Rory alluded to, we’re very reliant on our team-mates, the style of play, the weather… The opportunity may or may not come, so for me it’s a flip of a coin.

You can flip heads eight times in a row and not score in eight games, or flip tails eight times and score eight times in a row, so sometimes they come in flurries and sometimes there will be a gap or two. You need that opportunity to score.

Like I said, try-scoring is instinctive, it’s something I’m confident I can do if given the opportunity. That’s why I’ve learnt to structure my game around my kick-chase and edge defence, because that’s not a flip of a coin, that’s going to happen every single game. I try to build my focus around that and when the opportunity comes I’m ready to take it.

Is there a player you like/liked playing with? Rory, you’ve said that Jeremy Guscott was great at setting you up…

RU: Jonny will know, any player who can stick the pass to you in the bread basket makes it so much easier for a winger when you’re trying to set up the opponent or beat the man. Having to worry about where the ball is and trying to catch it, you’ve got to worry about that first before you start thinking about other things. Jerry was outstanding; not only the timing of the pass but the weight of the pass, and obviously where he put it too. I think he’s given me most scoring passes.

Who do you reckon has given you the most scoring passes?

JM: Put me in for the most? I don’t know. It’s quite a good spread. Elliot (Daly) has been brilliant at full-back. I think JJ (Jonathan Joseph) is similar to Jerry – run, kick, pass, timing, understanding…

RU: I agree.

JM: Sladey (Henry Slade) is similar. Then inside we’ve got George (Ford) and Owen (Farrell), and they’re just world class at making decisions at the line, catching and passing, so I’ve been surrounded by lots of good players.

RU: I must admit either JJ or Henry Slade, both of them are very talented players. I’d have been quite happy to play outside either of those two.

Rory Underwood met Jonny MayDo you think you’re similar players?

JM: From what I’ve seen of Rory, he has a little more frequency, faster feet, a good step on him. I’m a little bit rangier than Rory I’d say. From what I’ve seen of Rory, he’s sharp, high frequency, good step, strong, maybe a lower centre of gravity. I’ve seen people getting hold of him and then falling off him because he’s got a strong balance on his feet. I’d probably say we’re not that similar.

RU: I agree with you, Jonny. My blessing was my 0-60, so my first five to six metres I was very sharp but as soon as I got over ten, 20 metres, I just had to hang on. There was one try I scored against Wales, I got it in the 22 and I was running out of steam by the time I was getting to the try-line at the other end. Then there’s Jerry running beside me, just jogging quite happily because he was more of a rangier runner.

Jonny is a better all-rounder than me. His ability in the air is much better than mine. That’s an area I was never as good as I should have been, going for the high ball, especially in the Eighties when the game was very much ten-man rugby and I just chased the ball but wasn’t very good at it.

Do you think you could have thrived in each other’s era?

RU: Oh yeah. We’ve both got talent and obviously it does help if you play in a good England team. I’m sure if Jonny had played during the Nineties when England were really dominant, playing outside Will Carling and Jerry Guscott, then you’d have got plenty of chances.

JM: It’s a hard one to comment on. I remember watching Jerry at Twickenham when I was quite young, but I just missed Rory. So the people I grew up watching were Jason Robinson, Jonny Wilkinson, Will Greenwood, Ben Cohen, Josh Lewsey… They were a dominant team also if you look at the 2003 World Cup. So they were exciting to watch. I just missed that era, that team, before.

It’s interesting that what’s remembered is the teams. The team I just listed off, then Rory and Carling and Guscott and those guys, then hopefully we’re sort of creating our legacy now with the boys we’ve got here. That’s special. It’s what Rory was saying before, it’s that companionship, that team, the experience and memories you go through with that group of people – that’s what’s special about it.

Rory, did you think you’d hold the try record so long?

RU: It’s not the sort of thing you think about. You finish your career and you move on, and it’s just there. It’s never been a discussion until Jonny because people have got to 29-30 and that’s it. Records are always going to get beaten and at some point it will be.

Jonny May celebrates scoring a try against Ireland in 2015 (AFP/Getty Images)

Do you have that as a target, Jonny?

JM: I don’t think I was even aware of it until I got to the high 20s, then people started talking around it. Realistically, I don’t think I’ll catch up to Rory. When you think about it, what Rory achieved was incredible, it’s a very impressive record. He’s exactly right, if you get to around 30 it’s good going and there’s been a lot of people around there and Rory’s a standout. What’s impressive is what it takes to get selected for a Test match and the consistency of caps, that’s the challenge, and the tries come off the back of hanging around so long. Rory must have got around 80 caps…

RU: Yeah, 85.

JM: That’s very impressive, especially for a winger, to stay fit, to hang in there. It shows determination and commitment to being the best version of yourself and that’s what I have a huge amount of respect for because I know what it takes to get ready for one Test match and 85 is tough going. It takes some doing.

Do you think Jonny will break it?

RU: I’d have said yes before the season started because of the rate that he was going. If he stays fit, keeps his pace and gets to the next World Cup, the rate he was going you think he’s going to do it.

It just depends. If England play the way they do at the moment it might not work that way. He’s definitely got the capacity to do it. Despite what I said, he’s playing in a good England side and if he carries on one in two (Tests) he’s got a chance.

JM: If I go eight tails in a row we could be looking at an opportunity, but just as likely… It’s dependent on a lot of things.

What are you like off the field?

RU: I’m quiet, teetotaller, not a party raiser. Jason Leonard put me in his all-time world drinking XV in the back of his autobiography – as the bloody driver! That’s me – family man. I’m quite a reserved, quiet character.

Rory and Tony Underwood with the Calcutta Cup and Five Nations trophy in 1995 (Allsport/Getty Images)

JM: In a team you’ve got lots of different personalities, lots of types of people, and that’s exactly what you need. The key is getting all those personalities and ingredients to come together and produce great team performances.

I’m certainly a bit different to my team-mates, hopefully in a good way. I’m very focused, I’m a thinker and I take what I do very seriously. I work hard, I’m disciplined, and I think my team-mates respect that. But at the same time I can have a bit of a joke and take the mick out of myself. Sometimes I get people laughing at me, but I’m happy with that as long as it adds to the group and helps push the team forward.

The England team I’m with now, it’s the tightest team I’ve ever been a part of and the most talented, so it’s a special thing to be part of.

Rory, any advice for Jonny?

RU: Not really. I agree with what he says. He’s doing everything he can to score as many tries as possible and sometimes it’s Lady Luck on your side or sometimes it’s not. There’s no doubt when the chances come he’s a great try-scorer, he takes his chances. It’s just a question of whether he gets those chances to take. Good luck!

JM: Thank you very much.

I’d like to ask Rory what was your focus, your thought process gearing into a game? Did you have targets to hit or a mindset you wanted to get into?

RU: I didn’t have a target; generally you just wanted to win as a team and if tries came along that was a bonus. For me, my mentality always was it didn’t make a difference which team I played or which opponent I was against, I respected them. Therefore I always had to make sure I was tuned in, locked into the game, and that anything they did I was ready for. So it was very much about me concentrating on myself rather than worrying about the opposition, that’s very much the way I played the game.

If you ask any player from my generation, normally before a game I was eyes closed on the changing room bench just focusing, clearing my mind of clutter and getting ready for the game.

Gloucester’s Jonny May breaks against Harlequins (MB Media/Getty Images)

JM: My week is very much I want to refine certain skills and practise my craft, high ball mostly. I want to run fast in the week, that’s important, and recovery is huge, so I spend all hours of the day looking after my body, doing resilience work in the pool, in the ice bath, so basically when I get to the startline of the game, I feel like I’ve done everything possible I could have done to be as prepared as I possibly can be.

But like Rory said, I treat every game the same. It doesn’t matter if I’m back at Gloucester playing in a Challenge Cup game or if I’m playing the All Blacks, my prep is focused on being the best I can be each week.

Also, similar to Rory, I’m pretty quiet. If I can shut my eyes on the bus before the game, brilliant, and the clearer my head can be… That work in the week allows my head to be clearer come game time. I think that’s key for all wingers; you want a clear head because you just want to go out there and do what you’re good at.

This article originally appeared in the May 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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