When the current Guinness Premiership campaign kicked off in September, the Newcastle Falcons were among the favourites for the drop. And at the beginning of 2009, following an embarrassing 48-8 defeat at the hands of London Irish on January 3, the Falcons were in danger of fulfilling their status as relegation fodder. The Geordies had amassed just 12 points and were only just ahead of bottom-placed Bristol in the table.
Add in the fact that Newcastle were going to be without star fly-half Jonny Wilkinson for a considerable length of time due to his dislocated kneecap and you could feel the worry emanating from Kingston Park.
But Tom May, who can usually be found on the wing or in the centres, answered the call at fly-half and played with a confidence that has rippled through the team.
May's influence helped Newcastle reel off six league wins in a row as they saw off playoff-chasing clubs such as Gloucester, Saracens, Sale and Harlequins. That run of form gave the north-east outfit top-flight safety and high hopes for the future. "We got a bit of a kicking at London Irish and we've put in a lot of hard work since then," May explains. "We're starting to see the fruits of all our hard labour and we're a lot more confident. There is a real belief in the squad. We're really pleased with how we've turned things around.
"At the same time, it's frustrating that we didn't get two or three more wins earlier in the season. That's been the difference between us kicking on and competing for play-off places.
"That's not going to happen this year but we've got to take what we can out of the remainder of this year and try to replicate that good form next season. I'm not saying we should finish top of the league, but we should be up the other end of the table."
In playing a key role in Newcastle's change of fortune, May has risen to the challenge of learning yet another position among the backs and has adequately filled Wilkinson's shoes.
"I've enjoyed the whole learning process of a new position," May admits. "The way I usually play, I'm not one to stand out on the wing too much. I like to come in and get involved and get the ball at first or second receiver. I'm fairly comfortable being the first receiver.
"I've had to think more about the tactical side of the game, playing in the right area of the field and directing the play. It has been a fantastic experience and although I doubt I'm now seen as an out and out No.10, I have added another string to my bow."
As a man more accustomed to seeing action on the wing in recent years, May has a slightly different approach to the fly-half position.
He has been encouraged by Falcons director of rugby Steve Bates to run at defences a little more. And while he has done this to good effect, the Londoner would like to be a little more effective in this area.
"I probably haven't run at defences as much as I would have liked," he says. "At times I have forgotten to run because I've been thinking that much about where the team is going. It's something I'm very conscious of adding to my game at fly-half.
"It's very difficult at times when you've got people running at you and you're trying to keep a cool head. At centre or out on the wing, you can concentrate more on your own game and not think about the team's play so much. Now I'm focusing more on how we're playing as a team and then also trying to get my own game right."
While he would love to focus solely on his own game, May has always been one to answer the SOS call at another position. As a result, he has been slapped with that ever-dangerous label of a 'utility back' which can often translate to jack of all trades and a master of none.
So is being such a versatile performer a good thing or a curse?
"It can get a bit frustrating," May admits. "I've enjoyed playing in one position the last few weeks. Even though I'm not so used to playing No.10, it's been nice to know where I am and not to have to worry each week about whether I'm playing full-back or on the wing.
"A lot of people view me as a centre and I would probably say that is my favourite position. If I had any choice it would be one of the two centre positions.
"I would really like to nail down one position. Any player who can or has played several positions would much prefer to nail down one and stick with that."
As well as being versatile on the field, May is fiercely loyal. He joined Newcastle from Richmond in 1999 and has played more than 250 games for the Falcons. He is closing in on 200 Premiership appearances and that would put him in an elite group featuring Simon Shaw (Wasps), Kris Chesney and Hugh Vyvyan (both Saracens) and Mark Regan (Bristol).
"It would be a fantastic achievement," May says. "My dad pays a bit more attention to that than I do but it would be special. To achieve that would be fantastic, especially at one club. That is something I would look back on with a lot of pride when I finish my career.
"Newcastle has been a fantastic club to be involved with. The consistency hasn't been there but we've had some great highs and to win two Powergen Cups is an achievement in itself.
"We had a make-shift stand and a couple of Portaloos at the end of the pitch [Kingston Park] when I first arrived and now we have a 10,000-seat stadium and they're looking at developing the ground even more. The club is moving in the right direction."
May hopes that Newcastle will build on their strong performances in recent months and that he will be a part of any success the club has in the future.
"It's becoming harder to be a one-club man but it's something I take pride in," he explains. "Opportunities within the rugby market are on the increase and I think players will look seriously at chances to move abroad or to other clubs within the UK.
"But Newcastle is home to me now. I'm 30 and I would like to think I have four or five good years left in me. What position I play is not really my choice but, to be honest, I'm happy as long as I'm playing."Reuse content