Kay relies on brains not brawls for tactical edge

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The Independent Online

These England blokes sure know how to enjoy themselves. Joe Worsley spends most of his spare time in the team hotel, learning to play the piano. Jonny Wilkinson spends most of his spare time in his room, learning to play the guitar. If he is feeling really wild, Wilkinson either looks out of the window or challenges one of his colleagues to a "non-competitive" game of table tennis. Why not a competitive one, for heaven's sake? "I want to keep my nervous energy for the rugby," comes the reply. Jonny may be many things, but he is not the Keith Moon of world sport.

And then there is Ben Kay, the junior partner to a certain Martin Johnson in the boilerhouse of the red rose second row. Kay is a gardening enthusiast, but as there is no garden to tend in downtown Perth, he spends even more of his week than usual staring at his laptop. Not in pursuit of mindless entertainment, mark you - the Nintendo-heads are to be found among the backs - but in search of a tactical edge. The 27-year-old son of a High Court judge, he might be described as the Lord Chief Justice of the England line-out. What he says, goes.

"It can take me four hours at a time, breaking down the opposition line-out and working out a strategy we might take into a game," he said this week. "I can't say I enjoy spending my free afternoons assessing Georgia's front-jumper or the Springboks' middle throw, but the line-out is a big part of what we do and the responsibility is a heavy one." Especially when it comes to telling Johnson, a Judge Jeffreys figure if ever there was one, what to do? "Martin is a very receptive person," he grinned. "He generally responds positively to my ideas."

So it will be Kay's fault if the South African aerial specialists, Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield, lay so much as a fingernail on England's precious line-out ball today. Fortunately for him, this crucial phase of the game is now a relatively precise science, rather than an exercise in chaos theory. When Johnson first glowered his way into Test rugby a decade ago, the lifting of players was illegal and the contest for possession a no-holds-barred brawl. These days, the buzzwords are accuracy, organisation and imagination.

"I do smile to myself when I see footage of the old matches, with everyone flying in all directions and tearing strips off each other," Kay admitted. "By legalising the lifting aspect, the administrators got rid of an awful lot of cheating. People can see what is going on now, and when people can see things, the skulduggery usually drops off. Some of the old diehards think the line-out has lost something, but I would argue that it presents a different kind of challenge. Where do you throw the ball? Does the receiver take it going back or coming forwards? What tempo do you work at? Do you arrive before the opposition, or after them? There is a lot to think about, and I've been given the job of doing the thinking."

In any discussion of England's mightily influential second-row act, Johnson is the number one item on the agenda. Dark, menacing, occasionally brutal, never less than ruthless, the captain's "whatever it takes" streak is a source of endless fascination. By comparison, Kay is small potatoes on the human interest scale - more Iain Duncan Smith than Norman Tebbit, more Wise than Morecambe. He rarely gets much of a mention in the public prints and is virtually never counted among the individuals who might win this World Cup for England.

But this relative anonymity is undeserved, for Kay has been among the three or four biggest contributors to the national cause over the last 16 months. If his performance against Argentina in Buenos Aires in 2002 was his most complete to date, his last-minute line-out steal against New Zealand at Twickenham before Christmas was a match-saver, pure and simple.

His classic good cop-nasty cop partnership with Johnson, forged in the molten fires of Leicester ambition, is strikingly reminiscent of the celebrated collaboration between Paul Ackford and Wade Dooley in the early 1990s, and is growing more assertive by the game. Not that Kay would dream of suggesting that his union with Johnson is based on a 50-50 split. "When I came back from Argentina and people were writing Martin off, I couldn't help laughing," he recalled. "For a start, I didn't return to England feeling a better player for the experience of beating the Pumas on their own soil, although it was clearly a great victory for a side missing almost a dozen first-choice people. More to the point, why would anyone dismiss a player like Martin? When you play with the guy as much as I do, you realise just how outstanding he is. Apart from the line-out moves, which I call, it's still a case of following his lead."

Interestingly, Kay identifies two matches - Leicester's 2001 Heineken Cup triumph over Stade Français in Paris, and England's Six Nations faux pas against France in the same city a few months later - as the most significant of his career. He might have picked last November's victory over the All Blacks at Twickenham, when he came off the bench to pilfer a ball that should ultimately have found its way into the hands of Jonah Lomu. (Had it done so, England would almost certainly have been beaten.) He might have chosen the Grand Slam game against Ireland in April, or the supreme performance against the Wallabies in Melbourne four months ago. But he is unshakeable in his opinion.

"The game against Stade Français was the biggest learning experience of my life," he explained. "As a club, we wanted to win a European title so badly, it was almost painful. I'd never been so crippled with nerves before, and I haven't since. I don't expect to feel anything like the same way, ever again. The crowd, the weight of expectation, the occasion itself - I didn't know where I was, quite honestly, and I didn't play too well, either. But I got through it; we all got through it, as a team. Now, I look back on it in a totally positive light.

"By the same token, the game against France was a big negative - again, an entirely new learning experience. The French had us worked out, and England's game fell apart. I felt disorientated and, by the end, disillusioned. We'd been through hard times before and we've been through them since, but we've always been able to say: 'Okay, things are going wrong, let's deal with it.' That day, we couldn't deal with it. Things went wrong, and they stayed wrong. There was a helplessness about us, and it wasn't pleasant. I don't want to go through it a second time."

Assuming he stays fit, Kay has another World Cup left in him - a World Cup at which his input will be even more important than it is in this one. By 2007, he will be up there alongside Wilkinson and Phil Vickery as a senior player with leadership potential. But today, the immediate is all that matters. "Am I confident of beating the South Africans? Confident would be putting it a bit strong, because there is a thin line between that and complacency," he said, thoughtfully. "But I do believe our preparation has been exceptional. I couldn't identify one single thing I wish we'd done differently."

Extend Kay's four-hour stints in front of the computer screen to every other part of this England operation, and you get some idea of the extraordinary amount of planning underpinning this campaign.

If the red rose army fail to beat the Springboks today, it will not be because anything has been left to chance, but because they are not good enough. And that would leave England's "other" lock forward far more disorientated than he was in Paris in the early spring of 2002.