If anyone is still wondering precisely how badly England took their pool-stage defeat by the Springboks last month – a 36-0 shellacking that left them at risk of being the first world champions to relinquish their title before the knock-out round of the following tournament – there were a few words from Ben Kay yesterday that put the experience in its proper perspective ahead of this weekend's resumption of hostilities with the men in green. "We felt," the Leicester lock said, graphically, "like old addicts reaching their lowest point."
Kay had fallen further than most, having been a regular starter in the victorious 2003 side, and he confessed to a degree of bewilderment at the recent transformation in Red Rose fortunes. "A lot of us are surprised," he acknowledged. "When a team has been written off to the degree we've been written off, even the players start to believe it slightly. But that game against the Boks seems a long time ago. We had a frank meeting afterwards and everyone got things off their chests; we didn't leave the room until we'd found a direction that would allow us to move forward. How do I explain that performance? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but were we really prepared for the onslaught? I'm talking about the two years in the run-up to the match, not the two weeks."
As one of the more seasoned middle jumpers in international union – the High Court judge's son has 52 caps now, almost as many as his South African opponent Victor Matfield – Kay knows as much as anyone about the Springboks' aerial routine. "As a line-out unit, they're a different kettle of fish to anyone we've played so far," he said. "They look to dominate. They're not particularly complicated in the way they operate; unlike the French, who stick one prop at the front, another at the back and have jumpers everywhere else, the Boks tend to be predictable in terms of who they're sending up. But they're aggressive, both on their own ball and in challenging the opposition throw. It will be a hard contest."
His partner, the Wasps lock Simon Shaw, did not make much of an impact on the 2003 competition. In fact, he made no impact at all, having been summoned to Australia as a replacement for the injured Danny Grewcock and then ignored by the coaches. If it was not his moment four years ago – "He's a little less boring than Martin Johnson," said Kay, referring to his long-time partner at both club and Test level, "but the fact that Martin was a great captain as well as a great player certainly cost Simon a lot of caps" – he sees the final this Saturday as the culmination of 12 years' work.
"It's a dream," Shaw said. "As recently as a few months ago, I didn't believe I'd get to this tournament, let alone be playing in the final. The tail end of last season did it for me. I was lucky enough to be playing for a club who were competing hard for the big prizes. The Heineken Cup victory had major consequences for quite a few of us." Did the constant comparisons with Johnson – comparisons that never seemed to do him any favours – get on his nerves? "Not really, but I'm the kind of player who needs regular games. I draw confidence from that. I always felt I played pretty well for England, but various selectors saw fit not to pick me. That was their choice."
The current selectors are scheduled to reveal their team for the final this afternoon. Shaw need not worry. He will be in it.Reuse content