May lays down England marker as Leicester stave off Irish rally
Jonny May all but confirmed his return to the England team for the autumn Test series after scoring a sixth try in as many games as Leicester moved up to fifth place in the Premiership table with a fourth successive victory for the first time since March 2015.
May’s performance once again earned him the man-of-the-match award, backing up his 61st-minute try by making 17 carries, yielding 164 metres, as his stunning run of form continued following his transfer from Gloucester in August.
Matt O’Connor, Leicester’s head coach, is in no doubt that May is ready for a return to the Test stage after losing his place in Eddie Jones’s side during the Six Nations in March.
“He is a world-class finisher, he has given the group a lot and he creates things from nothing. At this level that is what you need,” said O’Connor. “He is easily the best finisher and best leftwinger in England. I would certainly pick him, but it is not my decision.”
There was an impressive debut for Gareth Owen following his move from Llanelli Scarlets, although O’Connor was understandably frustrated by his side’s inability to finish the job by failing to collect a bonus point. Sione Kalamafoni and Sam Harrison were forced out of the contest in the first half with concussion injuries, although O’Connor expects them both to be fit for the Champions Cup opener against Racing 92 in Paris on Saturday.
Irish looked down and out, trailing 21-3 after Will Evans crossed for a try at the start of the second half, but they finished with a flourish, with their supporters celebrating the last-gasp try by Alex Lewington – which snatched a losing bonus point – like a victory.
The scoreline flattered Irish; Leicester converted only one of eight line breaks in the first half and had withdrawn several of their big guns before the final quarter with a view to the start of their European campaign.
And yet Irish’s rousing finish was indicative of Nick Kennedy’s side’s ability to grow into games and a seemingly indefatigable spirit, even with an injury list that currently stands at 19 players.
“I am proud of the boys because they have got massive hearts and are great fighters,” said Kennedy. “We are ending games strongly, but need to stop giving ourselves a mountain to climb.”
Once again Irish were undone by a painfully slow start and at times a shocking defence – a joint training session with Harlequins in midweek did little to improve their pedestrian opening, with a bullet pass by Matt Toomua creating an early try for Nick Malouf. May’s ability to make half-breaks kept the Irish forwards on the back foot and it was no surprise when George Ford extended his side’s lead with three simple penalties.
Irish did not help themselves by their lack of competitive restarts, with Owen making a hugely impressive debut at outside-centre, spoilt only by a yellow card for a dangerous tackle on Greig Tonks, which allowed Tommy Bell to land a penalty.
Irish’s only other scoring chances in the first half came when hooker David Paice was held up over the line, while the last act of the half saw Topsy Ojo also fail to ground the ball over the line.
Evans scored with embarrassing ease at the start of the second half, taking advantage of some sloppy defending by Ben Franks, before a poor tackle by Malouf allowed Blair Cowan to cross for a try for Irish, with Bell’s conversion reducing the deficit to eight points.
When Toomua’s outstanding service put May into space to finish his try Leicester looked to be cruising again, but Paice struck back with a try following a side-stepping break by Ollie Hoskins, before Lewington’s score secured the losing bonus point.
Joy of six: Jonny May crossed for his sixth try in as many games during another fine display for Leicester