Ben Kay wants England to lay down a marker when they take on Australia this weekend ahead of their World Cup pool encounter next year, but admits that defeat could make things extremely difficult for the squad and coaching staff.
England returned to winning ways last weekend when they came through the physical test against Samoa, ending a five-game losing run with the 28-9 victory. While the three summer tour defeats to New Zealand wasn’t the biggest surprise, seeing Stuart Lancaster’s side open their autumn internationals with two losses raised a number of questions about this current England side, and an expected win over the Pacific Islanders didn’t do too much to put those doubts to rest.
But victory over the Wallabies would salvage the autumn campaign and indeed end the year on a high, and former England international and World Cup winner Kay wants the side to create some breathing space before they put on the red rose again in next year’s Six Nations championship.
England starting line-up vs Australia
England starting line-up vs Australia
1/22 15. Mike Brown
Age: 29 Caps: 32 Tries: 6 Points: 30 Club: Harlequins
2/22 14. Anthony Watson
Age: 20 Caps: 3 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Bath
3/22 13. Brad Barritt
Age: 28 Caps: 21 Tries: 1 Points: 5 Club: Saracens
4/22 12. Billy Twelvetrees
Age: 26 Caps: 15 Tries: 3 Points: 15 Club: Gloucester
5/22 11. Jonny May
Age: 24 Caps: 10 Tries: 3 Points: 15 Club: Gloucester
6/22 10. George Ford
Age: 21 Caps: 5 Tries: 0 Conversions: 3 Penalties: 4 Points: 18 Club: Bath
7/22 9. Ben Youngs
Age: 25 Caps: 41 Tries: 6 Points: 30 Club: Leicester Tigers
8/22 1. Joe Marler
Age: 24 Caps: 25 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Harlequins
9/22 2. Dylan Hartley
Age: 28 Caps: 60 Tries: 1 Points: 5 Club: Northampton Saints
10/22 3. David Wilson
Age: 29 Caps: 40 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Bath
11/22 4. Dave Attwood
Age: 27 Caps: 15 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Bath
12/22 5. Courtney Lawes
Age: 25 Caps: 35 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Northampton Saints
13/22 6. Tom Wood
Age: 28 Caps: 33 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Northampton Saints
14/22 7. Chris Robshaw
Age: 28 Caps: 31 Tries: 2 Points: 10 Club: Harlequins
15/22 8. Ben Morgan
Age: 25 Caps: 24 Tries: 2 Points: 10 Club: Gloucester
16/22 16. Rob Webber
Age: 28 Caps: 9 Tries: 1 Points: 5 Club: Bath
17/22 17. Matt Mullan
Age: 27 Caps: 6 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Wasps
18/22 18. Kieran Brookes
Age: 24 Caps: 3 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Newcastle
19/22 19. George Kruis
Age: 24 Caps: 1 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Saracens
20/22 20. James Haskell
Age: 29 Caps: 52 Tries: 4 Points: 20 Club: Wasps
21/22 22. Owen Farrell
Age: 23 Caps: 28 Tries: 2 Con: 35 Pens: 69 Drop-goals: 1 Points: 290 Club: Saracens
22/22 23. Marland Yarde
Age: 22 Caps: 6 Tries: 4 Points: 20 Club: Harlequins
Speaking on behalf of BT Sport's charitable initiative, The Supporters Club, Kay said: “Obviously there’s been quite a lot of negativity from the media and former players, coaches and things. Personally I don’t think it’s quite as doom and gloom as everyone is making out.
“I think Stuart Lancaster has probably had his honeymoon period where he made an immediate impact when he first took over by sorting out various things including the culture and environment that the players are in, and he brought in a lot of young guys in.
“This week is massively important. It is a psychological marker in terms of the World Cup because of the group stages and also just to give England some breathing space, because if they lose this and don’t perform then the knives are going to be out in the media right the way up to their next performance, which isn’t until February.”
Despite threatening to beat their superior Southern Hemisphere opponents earlier this month, England went on to lose both games against New Zealand and South Africa by just three points-a-time. It has been Lancaster’s most testing period as England head coach since taking over from Martin Johnson after the 2011 World Cup, and Kay realises that England’s progression hasn’t quite been what it was a few years ago.
“Perhaps there’s been a slight plateau, but the last five games before Samoa were against the two best teams in the world, and you look at the summer tour and people were probably thinking before they went England are going to get stuffed in every game or be well beaten in every game, and they were hugely competitive,” Kay continued.
“They lost to New Zealand by a score in the autumn and then they lost to South Africa by a score, so I don’t think it’s necessarily affecting their World Cup chances – it won’t affect their World Cup chances at all because they haven’t had a huge psychological dent in only losing by one score – and if they meet either of those teams which if everything goes to plan would be in the World Cup final they would feel that they could beat them.
“Samoa was always going to be a no-win game because if you thrash Samoa by 50 points everyone will say it’s a meaningless victory, and yet they beat Samoa 28-9 and although the manner of the performance wasn’t great, perhaps if New Zealand turned up against Samoa and played in a similar fashion by the same score no one would have batted an eyelid.”
Saturday’s encounter, against a Wallabies side that suffered a narrow 26-23 defeat to a Jonathan Sexton-inspired Ireland, will see George Ford retain the No 10 shirt, meaning there is no place in the starting XV for Owen Farrell.
Kay feels that Lancaster is making the right decision by starting Ford given that he is the man in form. In the Bath fly-half, Kay feels that England have more of a creative influence among their ranks that can get their backline firing on all cylinders – and how England need it. The ex-Leicester Tigers lock did admit that Ford needs to dispel the belief that his defence is not up to scratch, but accepts that he offers England something different with the ball in hand.
“Stuart Lancaster indicated on BT Sport [earlier in the week] that he’ll stick with Ford and I think that’s the right decision,” continued Kay.
“I’m not saying that Owen Farrell won’t have a big England future still to play but at the moment George Ford is the guy in form. Still, as is always the case in rugby, you get pigeonholed but still there’re slight concerns about his defensive abilities – not that he can’t make the tackles – but just because of his size. He’s never going to be as big a hitter as a Jonny Wilkinson or an Owen Farrell so there is that issue but his creative nature and his eye for a gap himself is probably the best in the country at the moment.
“That’s where England are struggling and they’ll want him to be able to pull the strings and get that backline moving.”
Of course England are currently coping with a crippling number of injuries – no less than seven British and Irish Lions representatives are missing while their total number of absentees stretches into double figures.
However, while that may have been the difference between winning and losing against the All Blacks and the Springboks, Kaye feels England can take heart from the fact they are running teams so close as well as blooding young and inexperienced players.
“Yeah exactly, I think that’s a definite case in point which is the big positive for England,” he said. “If you look how decimated their front five has been, they’re definitely not having the rub of the green in that aspect. No Geoff Parling, Dan Cole, Tom Youngs or Mako Vunipola, so they can definitely take heart out of the fact that they still managed to perform despite losing so many key players.
“Manu Tuilagi is someone who can create something out of nothing and would certainly have a fear factor if you were playing against him. I think that is a big issue and England would have wanted to play with their best XV all through the autumn to make sure that they’re starting to get some game time and understanding together. The only positive of not having those guys available is that Stuart Lancaster has been able to test other people and quite a few of them have come through the test and will now be providing competition for the players that 18 months ago we were saying would be in the starting XV.”
Ben Kay is amongst the BT Sport ambassadors backing a campaign by BT Sport’s The Supporters Club inviting people to pledge their time this Christmas and beyond to charities and sports clubs. People can try something new by pledging their extra time to sports volunteering opportunities in their local area via www.btsport.com/myextratime.Reuse content