Hidden amongst the gloriously irate kerfuffle of South African, Irish and French fans questioning corruption in World Rugby’s decision to take the 2023 World Cup to France, the last twenty-four hours has seen the quiet conclusion of perhaps my favourite rugby story of the year. Without a World Cup for England to be dumped out of, it’s hard to imagine a funnier-possible headline in 2017 than “England stars Jonny May and Ben Te’o want to fix North Korea”. And yet, buried somewhere under all of the usual, boring bullshit about ‘gameplans’ and ‘coaching’ and ‘rugby matches’, was a supremely entertaining saga unfolding slowly in the footnotes of the Union pages.
It all started in this year’s Six Nations camp when Te’o and May, which sounds like exactly the kind of shit midday detective show ITV would churn out if only the Polynesian housewife demographic was bigger, watched a documentary on North Korea. So shocked and appalled by the situation, May turned to Te’o and said “We need to go there before things get really bad”. The pair began to send each other links to new documentaries and meet for regular coffees to try to come up with a plan to “sort it out”. They told the press of their intentions to solve the crisis themselves.
This all really happened. Jonny May really said the pair of them have to go to North Korea “before things get really bad”. I am not making any of this up.
Jonny May is a bit like a hamster. He’s very good at running around the same patch over and over again, not so good at coming up with plans, or speaking English. Admittedly though, the hamster is able to run in a straight line, so has one up on him there. Considering May famously hasn’t even mastered the game he’s dedicated his life to playing, I’m not really optimistic he’s developed a talent for diplomacy after a few hours on Netflix. In Te’o’s own words, “There is a lot that needs to be done”. If it is to be “sorted out”, the current situation in North Korea is going to take decades of carefully-considered thought and effort by experts on societal affairs who have spent years studying the nation’s culture. May, on the other hand, once bought a pet lizard and told Rugby World Magazine “it was good for 30 seconds, but then I got bored”. God knows what would happen if we put thousands of lives in the hands of a man with the attention span of a millennial goldfish.
On the other hand, maybe that’s just why it’s a brilliant idea. Jonny May is basically rugby’s Forrest Gump. Fast, simple, harmless, and undoubtedly well-meaning, destined to be the wrong man in the right place at the right time. When Te’o told May that North Korea can be a “very dangerous” place to visit, May replied, and this is a quote, “I’m pretty keen on it”. Most approach the North Korea situation with dread or fear, but not Jonny May. He’s optimistic, he’s eager. When it comes to choosing the man to resolve international conflicts, I doubt the UN are likely to be impressed by a CV that solely comprises of a YouTube link to his try against New Zealand in 2014, but maybe they should be. He’ll be to the real twenty-first century what Forrest was to the fictional twentieth. He’ll charge into the country headfirst and take out Kim Jong Un without a single nuke fired. Knowing May, he’ll probably miss the important tackle, but that’s beside the point. Perhaps Britain was correct to elect someone called May after all, we just chose the wrong one.
Either that, or it’s a fucking terrible idea. It’s like someone looked at the James Franco/Seth Rogen situation from a few years ago and thought “I like it, but they’re too well-qualified for the job”. Worse still, what if it did work and set a precedent? What if suddenly England players were being parachuted in to solve all the world’s ills? We send Kyle Sinckler to Brexit negotiations and he leaves with nothing but a court order for giving Jean Claude Juncker a bloody nose. Joe Marler would offend everyone in the UN congregation before he even had his assignment. At least if James Haskell went to the Middle East, we could ask both Israel and Palestine if they think he’s a twat, and rejoice as they finally find something to agree on. That’s all without making a very obvious joke about Chris Robshaw’s decision making, because I’ve already mentioned England getting knocked out of the World Cup once in this piece and if I start letting myself reference it at will, my every article will just be the words “HAHAHAHAHAHA” and a GIF of Ben Youngs crying.
Unlike all that hypothetical nonsense, however, May and Te’o did actually appeal to the North Korean authorities. Then, just as this year’s Six Nations was drawing to a close, they had a letter from the North Korean embassy. Jonny May, being a fucking idiot, posted the confidential letter on Snapchat. The letter included the private phone number and email address of a North Korean ambassador offering to fund the trip. It suggested that, on their trip, May and Te’o would be shown the glories of North Korea, and as part of a program for overseas VIPs to help counter negative western beliefs about the country. This is perhaps the most remarkable bit of the whole story. North Korea seriously believed they could use two mid-tier rugby players then-plying their trade in the bottom-half of the Premiership to change the UK’s hearts and minds. The North Korean populous only have three TV channels, all of which designed to pump out propaganda, and very little accessible information outside of state control. However, even if Great Britain was a similarly closed circuit and all three of them broadcast three weeks of looping coverage where May and Te’o spout gibberish about how everyone was wrong and their visit to North Korea really helped them “find themselves” like Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love, I doubt a single person would be convinced.
It’s probably just as well that when it came to actually visiting, Jonny May did as Jonny May does and ran away. A few weeks after his invitation arrived in the post, May told the Daily Express “I don’t really know what to do to be honest. It’s still in my pigeon hole. I need to address that at some point”. Basically, he did what I did in Year 8 when I found out the girl I fancied liked me, but with one key difference. I was a thirteen-year-old boy with a crush. He is a fully-grown man trying to solve a diplomacy crisis. Jonny then added “My mum is petrified” (I never told mine, which is a tip for Jonny).
It’s a shame, because even if they didn’t “sort it out”, a few holiday snaps of the two sightseeing around North Korea could have been priceless. They could backpack up Paeku Mountain together, Te’o could try in vain to get May back on his lead as he runs around the Arch of Triumph, and they could get themselves a new profile picture of two outside the Hyangsan County International Friendship Exhibition, which is a real thing I discovered from Googling “North Korea tourist destinations”. North Korea also boasts the world’s biggest stadium, though if the pair really wanted to see a massive empty arena, they could just visit the Liberty Stadium on a day the Ospreys are playing.
This week, May finally said they’ve decided to knock the whole thing on the head, after Te’o pointed out to him “there’s too much going on over there. They are all over the news at the moment”. I don’t know how we’re in a situation whereby Ben Te’o is the calm, cool voice of reason. He’s a man who clearly lives and breathes rugby, but still has to be reminded that requires him to in- and exhale. Te’o is capable of being an excellent centre, yet passes about as well as a particularly stubborn Mastermind contestant. I’m amazed he realises the list of countries in the World Cup isn’t a complete atlas, so the fact Te’o knows North Korea is out there is frankly a level of awareness I didn’t have him pegged for.
In fact, whilst it’s easy for the takeaway from this story to be “Jonny May and Ben Te’o are both very stupid”, I think there’s actually something admirable about the entire thing. Yes, they ran away from it at the last second, likely fifty yard to the left and two yards forwards knowing May, but they saw something they felt was wrong and, no matter how silly an idea it looked from the outside, chose to try to do something about it. I don’t know whether they thought they were going to resolve the situation with a few sprint drills or engage theselves in international politics, but here are two people who I’ve seen struggle to make an impact away to London Irish trying to work out how they can make a difference in one of the biggest humanitarian crises of the modern age. In some ways, it makes me wish there were more people like Jonny May, except I know full well we’d still have the same number because those who don’t become professional rugby players would all get themselves killed by the age of 25. I’m not going to say Jonny May isn’t an idiot, but, as far as I’m concerned, the world needs more idiots willing to do what they feel is right.
N.B. Ben Te’o once described someone who made fun of him on Twitter as “some loser (…) with not much of a life”. Considering my track record for having the players I’m writing about reading my articles, I’d like to preface any comeback Te’o has by saying you are absolutely right, but I enjoy eating pasta with no sauce and watching Reese Witherspoon movies six nights out of seven, so go judge somebody else.