A six-time Premiership champion and twice Heineken Cup winner with Leicester Tigers, Ben Kay was a main-stay in the English 2nd row for almost ten years and a Rugby World Cup winner with England in 2003, alongside Leicester colleague Martin Johnson.
A master tactician and reader of the lineout, Kay even learned Afrikaans in a bid to crack the Springbok lineout code. Take The Three caught up with him to talk about England’s current lineout operators, amongst other things.
Take The Three: Ben let’s chat first about England’s performance against France. What were your overall impressions?
Ben Kay: I thought England had a big game. They dominated possession and territory, in fact the only thing they couldn’t dominate was the scoreboard. The tries early on were unlucky but there were also some lapses in concentration, like a mistackle by Alex Goode for the second try, which lead to the kick ahead, and some indecision from new cap Jack Nowell. So England will want to tighten up a couple of areas but Stuart Lancaster will be happy with some of the performances, particularly Danny Care, Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell had a good game.
TTT: The indecision perhaps down to inexperience on Nowell’s part – was it the right call by Lancaster to pick him?
BK: It was a brave call – he could have stuck with Ashton – but I thought Nowell’s work rate was exceptional. He recovered well from dropping that first kick off and France scoring and what really impressed me was his desire to go hunting for work. My only concern is whether Nowell’s a huge threat to score a try. He hasn’t scored a try in the Premiership this season.
TTT: While we’re on new caps what was your impression of Luther Burrell at the weekend?
BK: I actually thought Burrell was quiet in terms of the standard of some of the games he’s played for Saints this year but the line he ran for his try showed he is of genuine quality and he also kept Bastareaud quiet.
TTT: You mentioned Danny Care – he really got things going didn’t he?
BK: Yes, what Danny had done really well was the speed of the ball. He’d made a few breaks as well and been a threat. England were very quick at the breakdown, which allowed them to play on the front foot and if they play in the same manner this weekend Scotland could really struggle.
TTT: That brings us neatly onto England’s next game. Where will the game be won and lost?
BK: The key battle for me this weekend will be the back row and how Scotland can slow England’s ball down because France really didn’t manage to do that and England looked very dangerous.
The other key battle where England struggled in France was at the scrum, partly down to the pitch. Dan Cole is a very tall prop and Joe Marler likes to be very powerful and they both like very straight-on scrummaging. Against a much smaller set of forwards on Saturday – Domingo is very squat – it meant that Dan Cole couldn’t get his feet into the right position because the surface of the pitch was so wet. They struggled in that area and it allowed Domingo and Mas to get onto Dylan Hartley and England had a tough time at the scrum, only winning 60% of their own ball. If you look ahead to the weekend, Scotland will be similar – not quite as powerful scrummagers but the pitch up at Murrayfield is notoriously bad as well, so Scotland will take heart from the English performance.
TTT: Which areas of weakness should England be looking to target?
BK: Scotland struggled in certain areas against Ireland, particularly the lineout drive so that should be an area England look to capitalise on and really take it to Scotland.
Another area that’s going to be important is at fly-half – Duncan Weir struggled a bit. A key indicator of that is the fact that Weir carried seven times but only made six metres. If you look at all the other fly-halfs they had similar numbers of carries but were making 40-50m. That indicates to me that Weir isn’t 100% sure about the right time to carry and he’s probably got a little lack of confidence about what’s outside him. So that’s an area that England can look to attack.
TTT: What should England be wary of against Scotland?
BK: One of the real positives for Scotland was Dave Denton, picking off the base of the scrum, so England will want to put massive pressure on the Scottish scrum to try and stop him getting a free pick-up. Ball in hand, running off the base he makes a lot of yardage, as does Billy Vunipola, so my key match-up for the weekend would be those two.
Scotland’s other strength is in the back three. Both Hogg and Lamont had really strong games, carried a lot, beat a lot of defenders. England will want to make sure their kicking game is very tight, kicking onto grass rather than down the throat, because Scotland don’t create a lot from phase play but they’re lethal in the counter attack.
TTT: How do you rate England’s 2nd row options?
BK: I think England are very fortunate that they have players of genuine quality in that position. If you’d have asked me six to nine months ago whether England would miss Geoff Parling if he was injured I’d have said definitely because of his lineout leadership and his leadership all over the field and he’s also underrated with his workrate – how he carries the ball and how he defends. If you ask me now, England aren’t missing him too much because Courtney Lawes has really developed his ability to call the lineout, out of necessity really, and he’s come on exceptionally well. I think there’s room for all three of them in the squad and it’s probably good for Stuart Lancaster that he’s without Parling because he can blood another lineout leader.
TTT: How has Lawes improved his game to be a more rounded player?
BK: Where he’s improved is that ability to analyse the lineout and not panic in that highly pressurised situation. He’s worked well with club colleague Dylan Hartley – it always helps to have someone you’re familiar with throwing in – and he’s also got Tom Wood in there, who’s an exceptional leader and thinker, for a bit of support. Away from the lineout he’s made significant improvements to the accuracy of his defence. He’s always been a big hitter but now he’s not going for the big hit every time, rather getting himself into the right positions.
Probably the area he’s most improved is with ball in hand, his ability to stay on his feet, drive through the contact, get those extra yards and get the opposition defensive line onto the back foot which means the next carry is a really positive one for the team.
TTT: And what’s your prediction for this weekend’s Calcutta Cup clash?
BK: The weather will be important – it always is in England v Scotland games. Some of the games that England have lost up at Murrayfield have tended to be very wet so I’d presume that the Scottish boys will be doing little rain dances around the ground on Saturday but England will be wanting it very dry.
Although Scotland are at home, I think England, coming off the back of the disappointment of the weekend, will win the game. If I had to give a score I’d say if it’s dry 28-12, and if it’s wet it might temper that slightly so 21-12.
Ben Kay was speaking on behalf of Accenture, Official Technology Partner of the RBS 6 Nations. Follow @AccentureRugby on Twitter for all the latest stats and analysis.