Jonny May, the ultra-fast Gloucester wing who ripped up the All Blacks with a memorable individual try at Twickenham last November, will not be doing anything remotely as exciting when England square up to Ireland in Dublin this weekend – a match that will give the winners a serious shot at a Six Nations Grand Slam in World Cup year. May has been sent back to his club after losing out to Jack Nowell, his fellow West Countryman.
Nowell’s form for Exeter has persuaded the red-rose head coach, Stuart Lancaster, to tinker with his wide combination despite four consecutive victories – against Samoa and Australia before Christmas, followed by Wales and Italy in the current tournament.
If, as widely expected, the Harlequins full-back Mike Brown fails to make a complete recovery from concussion in time for the game on Sunday, the inexperienced Bath wing Anthony Watson will be the only fixed point among the outside backs.
May’s demise, confirmed last night when he failed to make the 26-man squad retained for the crossing of the Irish sea, did not come as any great shock. Last week, Lancaster highlighted the Gloucester man’s lapses against the Azzurri – there had also been costly errors during the victory over the Welsh – while extolling Nowell’s many virtues, which include a high degree of physical toughness and a ruthlessly competitive streak which is most evident when England play in hostile environments.
It is a sharp fall from grace, all the same. May’s sensational solo strike against the world champions of New Zealand signalled a welcome return to form for the quickest wing in the country, and with the equally elusive Watson breaking into the side on the other flank, it seemed England had finally found themselves a couple of natural try-scorers capable of testing the most parsimonious of international defences.
But May’s defensive issues, allied to some wasteful work in attack against the Italians, have hurt him. Nowell is nowhere near as rapid, but his error count is low and he rarely goes off-script.
If anyone can slip into a relatively unfamiliar role on the left wing and make a decent fist of it against a tactical kicker as accurate as Jonathan Sexton and a direct opponent as physically dominant as Tommy Bowe, it is the Cornishman.
Brown, who is slowly working his way through the “graduated return to play” protocols following the sickening blow to the head he took during the opening exchanges with the Italians 11 days ago, is still in the party.
However, the move to retain two rival full-backs – Alex Goode of Saracens and Chris Pennell of Worcester – suggests he is more likely to watch this weekend’s game than participate in it.
Lancaster sent a number of experienced hands back to their clubs, thereby making them available for Premiership activity. The Saracens centre Brad Barritt, the Leicester lock Geoff Parling and two Northampton forwards, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood, have only recently recovered from injury and are short of match hardness.
There was, however, a place for the young Bath tight-head prop Henry Thomas, kept in camp as cover for the impressive Newcastle front-rower Kieran Brookes, who is struggling with a hip problem. Should Brookes not make it through, Thomas will be among the replacements as understudy to the senior No 3, Dan Cole of Leicester.
Ireland, meanwhile, named their Lions No 8, Jamie Heaslip, in a large training squad for the game, but there is no chance of the former captain recovering from three fractured vertebrae in his back in time to play. Roger Wilson, the Ulster back-rower, and the Munster lock Billy Holland were also included.
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