IF EVER you needed proof that taking a risk can pay off – just reflect on the story of Hartpury student and England and Gloucester flier Jonny May, writes Emma Smith.
When the winger was weighing up his future as a 16-year-old without any significant representative rugby honours to his name, he took the decision to rebel against the status quo.
While his friends were staying on at Ridgeway School in Swindon to study A-levels, former Wootton Bassett RFC junior May headed to Hartpury to study a BTEC Diploma.
Playing mainly for Hartpury’s third team in his first year, he moved up to the seconds towards the end of the first season and later, handed a first team opportunity, he didn’t look back.
In his second season, he secured two Twickenham triumphs – winning the BUCS national universities title and also the EDF Junior Vase with Hartpury RFC – as well as securing promotion with the latter as Gloucestershire Premier champions.
With his BTEC Diploma complete, another decision beckoned and just as May was ploughing through university prospectuses, the call came from the Cherry and Whites. Gloucester Rugby offered him an Academy contract and the rest, as they say, is history.
Developing at lightning fast speed into an outstanding rugby talent, Jonny has gone on to become a lynchpin of the Gloucester side and, inevitably, to catch England coach Stuart Lancaster’s eye – winning his first cap against Argentina in 2013 before going on to play every game of the 2014 RBS Six Nations campaign and then being picked for the recent tour of New Zealand.
Throughout that time he has continued his studies at Hartpury, balancing a BA in Sports Business Management with his professional and international career as he looks to ensure he has a future beyond his sport.
“When I came to Hartpury, I hadn’t achieved much rugby-wise at all; county B squad at best,” said Jonny, who is now 24 and also plays at outside centre and full back.
“I improved massively while I was at college and winning those two finals at Twickenham with Hartpury was incredible. We barely lost a game that season, it was a really special time and my performances put me on Gloucester’s radar.
“If I hadn’t come to Hartpury, I honestly don’t think I’d be where I am now. It was a risk at the time, doing a BTEC instead of A-levels, being the only person from my school to come to Hartpury and living away from home, but it has paid off massively for me.
“Being part of the Academy in 2008-09 meant we only trained in the mornings and I was able to pass all the modules on my Foundation degree that first year. It was trickier the next year though as I moved into the first team squad. I was also on loan at Moseley in the Championship and playing for them, as well as representing England U20s, Hartpury RFC and Gloucester in the A League.
"There just weren’t enough hours in the day so it took me another two years to complete my Foundation degree.
“I then moved on to the full degree and, thanks to the support of the lecturers and the coaching staff at Hartpury, especially Gill Reindl, I should only have my dissertation and one module to go after I’ve caught up with some work this summer.
“I’m not able to get to that many lectures but my tutors always make time for me and arrange tutorials when I need them. They understand that it’s tough for me to balance my studies with my playing commitments, but the flexibility and support I receive is helping me to get a degree and ensure I have something to fall back on when I’ve finished playing.”
May is using his time wisely during the summer break. He has already fit in a holiday to Cyprus around the weddings of two of his Gloucester and England team-mates – Billy Twelvetrees and Charlie Sharples – and is now focusing on resting and recovery, particularly as he’s determined to address the chronic tendonitis in his foot before the new season starts.
He was carrying the minor injury as he played in the topsy-turvy first Test against New Zealand, which ended in a 20-15 defeat as the All Blacks snatched victory with a last-minute try, but knowing that rest was around the corner, he played through it and doesn’t feel it impacted on his performance.
“It was a long season with the end being particularly intense, so my body definitely needs rest to get back to being 100 per cent,” he added.
“Looking back, it was a great season for me but I definitely have more to give, for Gloucester and for England. I know what I need to work on and I’m determined to be even better this year.
“We went into that first Test against New Zealand as massive underdogs, missing all the boys playing in the Premiership final, but we did really well. We were kicking ourselves a bit because we had the opportunity to beat them in the first and second Tests and those opportunities don’t come along very often against a team like New Zealand.
“We may have lost the series 3-0 but we’ll take a huge amount from it. We know they are not invincible and the fact we ran them so close twice will give our young team a lot of confidence."