Kay ready to rise to bigger challenge

Leadership quality crucial as England try to right wrongs
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The Independent Online

Ben Kay held his hand up. Reflecting on England's subdued performance against Wales at the Millennium Stadium, the leader of the pack admitted that when the going got tough the tough did not take the game by the scruff of the neck. "After we had taken the lead in the last quarter perhaps I should have had a word with Charlie Hodgson. I could have been a bit more forceful."

Ben Kay held his hand up. Reflecting on England's subdued performance against Wales at the Millennium Stadium, the leader of the pack admitted that when the going got tough the tough did not take the game by the scruff of the neck. "After we had taken the lead in the last quarter perhaps I should have had a word with Charlie Hodgson. I could have been a bit more forceful."

If the good ship Red Rose has drifted into the doldrums following the epic voyage to the blue riband in Australia it is, to a degree, understandable. England have parted company with their natural-born leaders, Sir Clive Woodward and Martin Johnson; the injury to Jonny Wilkinson means that Hodgson has to take more responsibility, and that Jason Robinson appears to have been promoted above his station. It is not the only mistake made by Andy Robinson, Woodward's successor.

By unnecessarily conceding a scrum five metres from the line late in the game against Wales, Robinson, Jason that is, dropped a hint that he still isn't fully comfortable with the laws of union. Nor is he with the finer points of captaincy.

"We shouldn't have been playing any rugby in our half at all," Kay said. "Field position was the key. We should have closed the game down when we were in the lead. I should have had more of an impact in terms of leadership. We won a fair amount of line-out possession but we weren't dynamic enough to play a driving game. When individuals broke off, nobody went with them. There's a hell of a lot of areas we need to put right. Sometimes experience can be overrated, but it is a big factor in leadership."

England were bound to have a problem replacing Johnson, whose stature, experience and willingness to bend the laws and anything else enabled him to lord it over the world and his dog. The trouble is there's only one Martin Johnson. Kay, his partner for club and country, is a very different animal. When Johnson walked through the saloon doors the pianist stopped playing and the bartender dived for cover. Gentle Ben, on the other hand, would not disturb the horses.

The role of enforcer had been taken up, with considerable enthusiasm, by Danny Grewcock, who was described as a loose cannon by the Wasps coach, Warren Gatland, after his latest difference of opinion with Lawrence Dallaglio and who was fortunate to receive only a yellow card after his boot connected with Dwayne Peel's head in Cardiff. "What happened was an accident," Andy Robinson said. "A bit reckless, but an accident. Danny came through well."

When it came to the line-out, Kay and Grewcock did not always put their hand up in the right place at the right time, although that was more down to Steve Thompson's Achilles heel. A tremendous all-round player, Thompson suffers alarming lapses, like a forgetful schoolboy, in finding his jumper. It's akin to a darts player missing the board completely.

England's line-out unravelled when they lost to Ireland at Fortress Twickenham in the Six Nations last year, a result that helped to fracture the aura of the world champions. Against Wales it was Thompson's throw, which soared above every white jersey and came down with snow on it, that led to the only try of the match, by Shane Williams in the 10th minute.

Yet Kay, who makes the line-out calls, half-blames himself. "It was a big ask to go for a long throw at our first defensive line-out," Kay said. "In future I'll make sure it's as easy as possible for Steve." It's not as if Thompson, who has form in this department, is a rookie who should need shepherding. Yet here is no doubt that occasionally he is not in control when he steps up to the oche.

Kay, a former captain of the England A team, has had enough to think about, such as his international career, without worrying over his leadership credentials and whether Thompson can or cannot find a 6ft 6in line-out target who is being lifted six feet off the ground.

After the riches of the World Cup, he went through a form of recession. "I didn't play well in the Six Nations last season and that affected me," Kay said.

So much so that he was omitted from Woodward's tour of the southern hemisphere and didn't even have the home comfort of partnering Johnson in the Leicester second-row. Louis Deacon, an impressive operator, kept Kay on the Tigers' bench, while England went for Grewcock and Steve Borthwick.

"I have had to wait again for my chance," Kay added, "but the important thing for me was not to go into my shell. I've been down, but I was also in a fortunate position. With Leicester I'm at the best club in Europe, and then I was a replacement for England. The way I looked at it is that a lot of people would give their right arm to sit on the England bench."

Josh Lewsey, one of England's rare successes against Wales - for the majority in Cardiff it was a case of never mind the quality, feel the elation - entered the debate about an apparent lack of Red Rose direction.

"In the World Cup we had a bunch of leaders who knew how to react to any given situation," Lewsey said. "No matter what happened we kept our cool and always believed in ourselves. We knew how to close games down and we could play it wide or tight. Against Wales we didn't create any phases, there was no quick ball and we were always on the back foot. We didn't play with any pattern. Our performance was not up to scratch and that's why everybody was so shattered in the dressing room afterwards."

Lewsey's critique was not completely one-sided. "We made 95 per cent of our tackles," he said. "And that's right up there with a World Cup-winning performance. Every team goes through a period of evolution and it's our turn for the hard times. I'd prefer to lose a couple of games now than in two years' time, when we'll be defending the World Cup. Hopefully, we'll face the same France that performed against Scotland, but you never know with the French."

England cannot afford further embar-rassment in the Six Nations, having already seen the prospect of a Grand Slam or a Triple Crown disappear. Asked if a win today against France was crucial, Kay simply laughed. "Every game England play is crucial," he replied.

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