Six Nations 2014: Chalk and cheese wings that offer England X-factor
Stuart Lancaster has selected Jonny May for his raw pace and Jack Nowell for his direct running having been impressed by widemen in training - and they aim to repay his faith
Thursday 30 January 2014
They are the opposites who have attracted Stuart Lancaster. At first as a hunch and then, as training at England's base in the soggy Surrey countryside has progressed, as an increasing certainty that in Jonny May and Jack Nowell, international novices, he has the ideal men to place on opposite sides of the pitch to face one of the biggest challenges in the Six Nations.
Nowell had his manhood questioned on Wednesday when he left the team hotel for an afternoon at the pictures. The Wolf of Wall Street has an 18 certificate and the receptionist in Camberley's cinema wanted ID from the fresh-faced 20-year-old. England's new cap went back to the hotel to pick up his passport.
Today he was laughing about it, and laughing too about being front- and back-page news back home in Cornwall. There was that glint in his eye, a young man embarking on an awfully big adventure. It is a glint Lancaster has spotted, and he has seen something in May, too.
They may have a solitary cap between them, gained by May in Argentina last summer, but Lancaster has given each an enormous show of faith in pitching them into England's opening Six Nations match in Paris. May will line up on the left, a winger chosen for sheer speed – he breaks the 11-second barrier for the 100m and, as Perpignan's defenders discovered in Gloucester's recent Heineken Cup triumph in France, there is no catching him once into his stride.
On the right, Nowell is more abrasive, more direct. He is a full-back by trade, more in the Mike Brown mould. But both offer an element of unpredictability, the known unknown, as well as finishing power. It is a bold selection by Lancaster; he expects them to be bold in return.
"He likes to talk about an X-factor on the wing," said May of what the England coach has asked of him. "We are going to be going hell for leather, me and Jack – we're playing for England and we're just so excited. They want me and Jack to get involved as much as we can."
Nowell too has been instructed by Mike Catt not to feel restricted by either position or occasion. "If you're on the wing they say you don't have to stay on the wing," he said. "They have given me the free licence to try and get my hands on the ball."
Nowell's rise has been as rapid as May's progress with ball in hand down the wing. Last summer he was in England's World Cup-winning Under-20 side, scoring a try in the final against Wales.
May, three years his senior, describes himself as a later developer. He has had the more gradual introduction to the senior squad that Lancaster favours, allowed to dip his toe in the waters on the tour to South Africa two summers ago and then earning a debut in the second Test in Argentina last summer. That trip was notable for England's attacking sparkle and May played his part after being ushered into the Test side at the 11th hour when Christian Wade was called up by the Lions. Lancaster took due note of how he handled the occasion.
He was not first choice though. The likes of Wade, Marland Yarde and even Lancaster's fondness for playing Brown on the left wing left the Gloucester man down the list. And with Gloucester struggling, the opportunities to impress were limited. But he has that raw ingredient that lights up coaches' eyes: sheer speed.
"Speed is a big part of my game," said May. "Speed is quite a hard asset to defend if you can time your run nicely. I hope I can get my hands on the ball and express myself at pace."
With the likes of James Simpson-Daniel and Charlie Sharples as well as May, Gloucester boast the quickest back line in England and have been using Marlon Devonish, the Olympic 100m relay gold medallist, to try to help them go ever faster. "It's been invaluable when he's been in," said May. "He described James as a classic 60m runner, Charlie as a 100m and me a 200m. I think he was impressed with the talent we have."
Injury to the likes of Wade and Yarde has opened the door for May but he has the ability to slip through it pretty sharpish. And once in the shirt there is the knowledge that Lancaster is a loyal coach. "He has given me a lot of confidence and belief in myself, given me this privilege," said May.
Lancaster likes to sit down one-on-one with players, tell them why they are here and what he wants of them. He is a hands-on man-manager.
"He said to me that he has complete belief in me because it feels like my time now, considering my previous seasons with Gloucester and I had a good tour in South Africa a couple of summers ago and a good game in Argentina as well," said May.
His record this season of seven tries in 17 games for Gloucester, including two in two against Perpignan, and 24 in total from 44 competitive starts for the club, puts a tick in the form box on the Lancaster selection chart. The England coach has always insisted he would pick on form and that is part of his attraction to May and Nowell, whom he first saw play for England's Under-18 side. Nowell had dyed blond hair that day in Ireland. He has an intricate tattoo down one arm; a young man not afraid to stand out.
May is different, quieter. At school, despite his speed, he preferred to try the pole vault – as a 13-year-old he was the eighth best in the country. This is, though, no leap of faith by Lancaster in choosing May, as perhaps it is with Nowell. There is, of course, instinct involved, especially in ushering the two wings and Luther Burrell out of the Stade de France dressing room with one cap between them, but May has done plenty to impress the England coach on a week-by-week basis. If Nowell is a bouncing bomb to be unleashed on the French defence, May is a stealth bomber.
"He has created something out of nothing countless times over the last couple of seasons," said Lancaster. "Experience counts for something but belief in the player counts for more."
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