Kay back in fray with recharged batteries

Big lock puts fatigue and tragedy behind him to concentrate on club and country
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The Independent Online

In hindsight, Ben Kay had two very good reasons to be grateful for being dropped from England's tour of New Zealand and Australia in the summer. One was that he was excused a public thrashing, and the other was much more important.

In hindsight, Ben Kay had two very good reasons to be grateful for being dropped from England's tour of New Zealand and Australia in the summer. One was that he was excused a public thrashing, and the other was much more important.

His father, Sir John Kay, a Lord Justice of Appeal, died suddenly at the age of 60. "Had I gone on tour I would have got back after it had happened," Ben said. "It was a huge shock, and we are still getting over it."

Sir John was working in his study at home in London, preparing for the appeal of Sion Jenkins, the Sussex head teacher convicted of the murder of his stepdaughter, when he collapsed.

"One side of his heart stopped. He was in intensive care for a week and we were told there was every likelihood he had suffered brain damage. We took the decision to stop treating him. He was a great man and I am very proud to have had him as my dad."

The feeling was undoubtedly mutual. Kay's parents were at the World Cup final in Sydney, where their son was about to score a first-half try against Australia when he knocked on.

"It's been mentioned at every dinner I have been to since. It was a classic howler which you teach children not to do. Someone was coming over to tackle me, and as I was thinking I'd have to smash through him to get to the line I took my eye off the ball.

"It was the worst possible time in the worst possible place. I thought it was a disaster, but thank God I was part of the winning team. I have only seen clips of the final, but perhaps long after I have retired I'll have time to enjoy the video with my grandkids."

In the intervening 11 months, life has been less rosy for Kay, with both England and his club, Leicester, beginning with his omission from the tour to the southern hemisphere.

"In the build-up I remember thinking, 'God, I really don't want to go on this trip'. Then I came to my senses and thought, 'Christ, I can't think like that', so I started to pump myself up. I was getting quite excited."

And then Clive Woodward rang with the news that he was resting him. Kay rang Andy Robinson - subsequently handed a four-year deal as the new Red Rose coach last week - who told him he looked tired and in need of a break. "I went to bed very disappointed and woke up in a much better frame of mind. I had four weeks off, which I had not had for years."

While Kay and his wife, Virginia, a physiotherapist, were enjoying Bermuda, England were having a torrid time. "I didn't watch the rugby on television but I received text messages from friends telling me I was in the right place."

The new season started with further surprises and another phone call from Sir Clive. "It was just after his resignation, and he rang all the boys to apologise for not telling us in advance. He said things had happened so fast he didn't have a chance. He didn't need to tell me what he's doing with his life. He said that if I played well maybe we would work together again in the near future. I am sure he said the same thing to everybody."

It was, of course, a reference to the Lions tour of New Zealand next year. Kay's priority is not to become a Lion, nor even to regain his place in the England second row, but to impress, week in, week out, the Leicester coach, John Wells. Competition for places at Welford Road is as fierce as ever, Wells initially preferring the combination of Martin Johnson and Louis Deacon, although last week Kay was prominent in the super-heavyweight clash between Leicester and Bath.

"When my form started to dip I knew I'd have a fight on my hands. Louis got ahead of me in the pecking order. I have to prove to Wellsy that he doesn't need to rotate us. Every time I get a chance I've got to play as well as I can. I thought I did all right against Bath, although our line-out wasn't 100 per cent. We weren't happy with the draw. If I am playing well and don't get back for England, it's out of my hands."

Kay, who attended England training at Loughborough last week, has seen improvements in the Red Rose preparation since Woodward's departure, and with the Tigers since Wells succeeded Dean Richards. "Technically, Clive was not the greatest coach, but he brought in the best people. He let Robbo run the forwards so there's not been a huge change, although he's listened to the players and has cut out a lot of the meetings we used to have. Before every session Clive would hold meetings and then we'd have another on the field. When you have only just got out of bed, the danger was to start nodding off."

In the Premiership, Leicester are back where they think they belong, and next week open their Heineken Cup campaign at home to Calvisano. This will be a gentle introduction to Pool One, for circling at the deep end are Wasps, the current champions, and Biarritz. "There's always an extra bite to this tournament," said Kay, who featured in Leicester's back-to-back cup triumphs in 2001 and 2002, when they beat Stade Français 34-30 and Munster 15-9.

Kay, who is 28, was educated at Merchant Taylors' School and played for Waterloo before joining Leicester in 1999 on a salary of £8,000. "I spoke to my dad about it. He said, 'You'd go and play for them as an amateur, wouldn't you?' The answer was yes."

John Kay played for Waterloo Seconds, also in the second row, but broke an arm. On Thursday there will be a memorial service in London. "Before we decided to switch off the life-support machine I had that time with dad in hospital and I made a few promises to him," Kay said.

"I've set goals for myself. Rugby has been a great release for me and I was able to throw myself into training. When you're flogging yourself on the pitch it's hard to think of anything else."