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Bouncing back: Why super sub role May be best bet for Tyrone

As part of an NRL.com series on players aiming for a bounce-back season, Dominic Brock examines how Tyrone May can make the best impact for the Panthers this season.

One of the junior stars coming through the ranks at Penrith, Tyrone May's first-grade career hasn't flourished to the same extent as his lower-grade teammates like Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai, Dylan Edwards and Stephen Crichton.

Capable of playing at five-eighth, halfback, centre, lock, second-rower or off the bench – all roles he's filled at NRL level – as well as fullback and hooker, May is the most versatile member of the Panthers' side but has struggled to nail down a position since his debut in 2017.

May is rebuilding his career after he was suspended until round five last season on the back of missing the entirety of the 2019 campaign due to criminal charges.

He returned to the Panthers' line-up via the interchange in round eight last season, getting one start at lock in round 11 before filling in at centre due to injury for a run of three games in the middle of the season.

Centre now looks his best chance of a starting position, after he played there in the last round of the regular season and in last year's preliminary final and grand final.

Everybody’s heading to Magic Round

Selected at centre for his defence as well as his ball-playing ability, May did a good job defensively against the Rabbitohs as Penrith earned a spot in the decider – replacing Brent Naden who had made six missed tackles against the Roosters a week earlier.

However, he also struggled at times in the grand final, with poor reads in defence leading to tries to Justin Olam and Ryan Papenhuyzen as Melbourne collected the Telstra Premiership trophy.

May now has new competition for the right centre position with former Tigers and Storm player Paul Momirovski arriving at the club in place of Dean Whare, who has left for Super League club Catalans. Momirovski, like Naden, is a natural centre while May remains a jack-of-all-trades utility.

So will 2021 be a bounce-back year for May?

Passing game on the rise

May's first step in putting together a strong season is locking down a specific role – even if that role isn't in the starting side.

It's worth keeping in mind that in the modern game players can make a major impact on their team's fortunes as a bench specialist. Melbourne's Brandon Smith earned the Kiwis No.9 jersey and became one of the NRL's best players as a bench player. Kurt Gildey once famously (or infamously) captained the NSW Origin side as a bench utility.

And May is already a creative weapon off the bench. During his eight appearances as an interchange player last season he produced four try assists and five line-break assists – the best among bench players in the NRL in both categories. (Former Panthers Tyrone Peachey ranked second with three try assists and two line-break assists, with more than twice as much game time as May.)

With a total of seven try assists and eight line-break assists for the season, May was easily the Panthers' third most prolific playmaker behind Jarome Luai (23 try assists, 20 line-break assists) and Nathan Cleary (17 try assists, 11 line-break assists) despite ranking 14th at the club for minutes played.

May: I wouldn't be here without Ivan

Running game on the slide

That role as an extra ball-player off the bench looks the most natural fit for May, who won't unseat star duo Cleary and Luai in the halves and who lacks the explosive running game of star centre Stephen Crichton or even Naden or Momirovski.

Crichton (17 tries in 26 games), Naden (20 tries in 30 games) and Momirovski (14 tries in 19 games) are already noted finishers in the early stage in their careers, while May has crossed for a relatively low seven tries in 35 matches across three seasons.

In fact May's running game is trending downward since his rookie season. He averaged an excellent five tackle breaks per 80 minutes in 2017 (playing mostly at five-eighth), then 2.3 tackle breaks per 80 in 2018, and only 0.7 busts per 80 minutes last year.

May's defence gave him the edge over Naden in coach Ivan Cleary's plans late last season, but the recruitment of Momirovski – who was solid in limited appearances as a back-up option at Melbourne last year – suggests the Panthers aren't settled on their preferred starting backline just yet.

May's defensive lapses in the grand final don't help his chances of retaining that starting spot, while another Panther – second-rower Kurt Capewell – was a surprise success story in the centres during Queensland's shock State of Origin win at the end of 2020.

With so much competition at centre the best result for May could be locking down the No.14 jersey. With rival playmaker Matt Burton bound for the Bulldogs in 2022 (or potentially earlier) the bench utility role could be May's most sure-fire way of keeping a spot in the team and producing consistent performances.

Not only can he play the role of Mr Fix-it if injuries strike, but his ability to create try-scoring chances for teammates is an added bonus for a team already blessed with plenty of strike power in the starting side.

Panthers in 2021

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