James Lawton: Kay discloses his secret passion: lawn maintenance

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The Independent Online

A little psychological scene-setting may be necessary in order to get the full impact of Ben Kay's shocking confession. The 27-year-old England second-rower woke up in his room overlooking the rolling surf of Manly Bay and braced himself for another day of work on the training field and long hours of analysis of match video, a vital aspect of his job as the enforcer of line-out efficiency.

Though not an avid newspaper reader - he occasionally browses the law section to keep up with the judgments of his father, Lord Justice John Kay, who ruled recently that the last woman hanged in England, Ruth Ellis, was dealt with correctly according to the law - he was made aware over breakfast that the Australian press was becoming more intensely hostile by the day. Its campaign to depict Kay and his team-mates and all their compatriots, including dead ones like William Shakespeare, Francis Drake and Captain Cook, as the most relentlessly boring nation on the face of this earth was on a flood tide.

Later, on the beach he noticed a red-bordered warning sign that said, "Danger - Boring Rugby Team Trains Here."

The sign was produced by the Sydney Daily Telegraph, a newspaper that each day bombards its uniformly erudite and blazingly witty readers with the kind of coruscating humour that went into the Very Important Correction running on page five of yesterday's edition : "The Daily Telegraph reported yesterday that the England team was boring. This was incorrect. The entire country of England is boring. The Daily Telegraph wishes to apologise for the error."

It was perhaps the weight of this blistering put-down that unlocked Kay's appalling secret. When he was asked about his great passion in life he briefly blinked like a very large rabbit caught in the headlights - and then he blurted it out. "I'm very keen on lawn maintenance," he said. And then groaned.

"I'm also keen on surfing," he added quickly, "maybe you could get a picture of me splashing out there in the waves." But deep down he knew it was too late. "I just love looking after the lawn," he admitted. "My wife does the other bits, the flowers and the plants. My job is the lawn. I don't use a spirit level, but I like it to be in perfect order, and the grass a perfect shade of green. It's not a technical thing. I just like to stand there admiring the lawn, thinking, 'that's perfect'. It's more aesthetic, really."

That, he said, was certainly the basis of his admiration for one of his favourite sportsmen ... the former Liverpool hero Kenny Dalglish - a wonderfully skilful, subtle player, and as a committed Anfield supporter he was now delighted that Steve Gerrard had decided to re-sign for the club. Football fan, lawn maintenance freak, for the moment at least it seemed that Ben Kay might be manna for the Sydney Daily Telegraph.

He even gave some credence to the paper's backpage headline which in huge letters described the England pack as Grumpy Old Men. "Well, Jonno [captain Martin Johnson] can be a grumpy old bastard, especially when little guys try things on with him which, if he did anything like it, would probably lead to him being sent off," said Kay. "But then he is getting better every day as a captain. He knows when to push, and when to let things rest."

Letting things rest is something that cannot easily be said for the style of Australia's wounded star Toutai Kefu, who after announcing that the sand had just about run through England's time-glass, was ready to trawl through several centuries of English history to come up with fresh reasons to pray for Australian victory on Saturday night.

"The English have always been an arrogant race. Go back in English history, look at the English army. Who goes to war dressed up in red coats?" Kefu asked. He also dredged up the pain of Australian defeat at Twickenham two years ago, when he took particular exception to the celebrations of "dust-mite" England scrum-half Matt Dawson. "They've never been humble winners and Dawson proved it that day," sighed Tefu.

Boring? Arrogant? The arguments will rage on for three more days, but all of them will only warm the sense of the England coach, Clive Woodward, that the noise being made by the Australians is in direct proportion to their concern about the possible outcome of the World Cup final.

If they want boring, they may not have seen anything yet, Woodward implied when he announced the single change from last Sunday's crushingly successful semi-final team, Mike Catt losing out to the restored physical strength of Mike Tindall. "We can play a wide game. We can play whatever game we wish," said Woodward, "but what we're going to do for sure is play winning rugby. That's really our game. Winning."

And in the process there may be just a flicker of entertainment value. Lawrence Dallaglio, whose neck muscles seemed to be on the point of exploding as he sang the national anthem before the victory over France, doesn't easily fit into the stereotype proclaimed by the Australians. Some of the convulsions of his life and his career, not least when he lost the captaincy after a bout of stupendous light-headedness, would challenge even an average Australian's belief that his own life is shot through unsurpassable drama and thrills.

Dallaglio, imagining the pain of his team-mate Catt, said, "I didn't agree with the decision to drop me when I was about to win my 50th cap last year, but what's important is how you react to something like that. Tindall was fantastic when he lost his place for the semi-final and Catty's reaction now is just the same. I sometimes wonder whether it was a message to everyone when I was dropped. Everyone's desperate to be in the 15, but more than anything, everyone's desperate to win."

Ben Kay, the Aussies should know, is the first to agree it beats the hell out of watching the grass grow.