Tyro Kay is new colossus of Leicester

Hugh Godwin meets the lock whose dedication to rebuilding his game earned an England call-up
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The Independent Online

A re-screening of Midnight Cowboy one evening this week served up the lovely line when Enrico Rizzo first encounters Joe Buck. "I just want to say," Rizzo tells the gaudy Texan, "that is a colossal shirt." It seemed an apt reaction the following morning, when Ben Kay ushered himself into the clubhouse at Leicester's training ground. The guy wears a colossal shirt.

Full-time training may have turned props and locks into finely-honed athletes, compared to their pot-bellied predecessors, but they remain seriously big folk. To watch Kay being hoisted five feet off the ground in the line-out is to wonder, not so much at his ability to reach such heights, but that the likes of Darren Garforth and Martin Corry don't spring a hernia just getting him up there.

On this particular morning, Garforth and Corry were spared the task. Kay had celebrated his first call-up to the senior England squad, for next month's match in Ireland, by tweaking a muscle in his back, so sat out training. He wanted to be fit for yesterday's meeting with Bath. In the second row his likely opponents were Danny Grewcock, one step ahead of Kay in the England pecking order, and Steve Borthwick, capped against France last April, but now omitted from Clive Woodward's 30-man party. Kay himself is in his third season for Leicester alongside England's captain, Martin Johnson. Exciting times in a position of strength for the red rose.

Kay's promotion comes after he made a good impression on the shadow England side's summer tour of North America, despite getting injured halfway through the second Test against Canada. "The kneecap popped out and went back in again," he said. "It's a problem I've had in the past. It's not actually that painful but it tends to grind a bit." That's the drawback of Kay's line-out leaps. What goes up, must come down. "We'll probably practice that a hundred times a week in training," he said. "Your knees take a fair old pounding, and it's obvious it's going to hurt." No pain, no gain. And Kay, Liverpool-born, bred and educated (at Merchant Taylors), has come on leaps and bounds since moving up a division from Waterloo, where he had played from the age of five.

In the summer of 1999, Waterloo's then coach, Tony Russ, once of Leicester, recommended Kay to the Tigers. John Wells, the Leicester and England A forwards coach, recalls the first contact. "We threw a few balls at him, and though he could catch the ball, he couldn't step forwards, or backwards. He had no idea how to create space for himself." Wells, along with Leicester's South African lock, Fritz van Heerden, knocked Kay into shape. "It's not all about height and speed, you have to think about it as well," Wells said. "Ben's an intelligent lad. Fritz taught him the subjective stuff, the sort that only an intelligent player can take on board." Before long, Kay was demanding inclusion at the injury-prone van Heerden's expense. Last season the tyro was Johnson's regular partner as Leicester swept to three trophies which included the coveted Heineken Cup.

"I wouldn't have got into the England squad without John Wells," Kay said. "He tore apart all my basic skills and put them back together. At first, it felt like I wasn't doing anything right. Looking back, I realise he didn't have time to tell me any good things, because he was so busy spotting what was wrong."

Kay's recollections are laced with self-deprecating humour, but his father, John, says he is good at arguing his corner. And John ought to know the value of good argument – he is a Lord Justice of Appeal, and a former High Court Judge. As a youngster, Ben (short for Benedict) was intrigued by the lawyer's life, but found the scattering of legal books across the dining table put him off. "There was definitely a temptation there for me," he said, "and my sister's a good lawyer in Liverpool. But when I was making decisions on careers I wasn't particularly into reading, and knew it wasn't the thing." His father is based in London, spends weekends at the family home in Liverpool and stops in at Welford Road on the way. Although Kay senior was chairman of minis and juniors at Waterloo, and became the club president, he has been known to watch Leicester even when his son is not playing.

Ben returned the compliment on one occasion. "I watched my father at the High Court, sentencing someone to life. I suppose it's the same as a big game for me. I asked him whether he still got butterflies doing it, or whether it was a matter of course. It was harrowing, because there was a bit of fuss when the verdict came. He said he did still get nervous."

Kay intends to help Leicester mount a serious defence of their hard-won European prize. The Tigers kick off against Llanelli next Saturday, aiming to do better than England's previous winners. Bath missed out because of the boycott in 1998-99, and Northampton failed to make it through the pool stage last season. "Motivation won't be a problem," Kay said, in a tone that brooked no argument. "Whether we'll perform as well as last year remains to be seen. Two years ago we had a shocker in the pool and didn't get through. We're not over-confident, but we are confident in our ability." Perpignan, Leicester's French opponents in the pool, beat them in pre-season. "I'm looking forward to the proper match," said Kay.