'Yes, I'm to blame for Wilkomania. And what's more I meant to do it...'

Ben Kay, whose dropped pass helped Jonny Wilkinson become a national hero, tells Chris Hewett his plan to reverse the decline that has followed the World Cup
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Ben Kay has been blamed for the occasional red rose mishap since he first squeezed his elongated frame into the boiler-house of the England scrum on the low-key tour of North America in 2001, the most obvious example being the catastrophic line-out collapse against Ireland at Twickenham last season. He has not, however, been publicly accused of subjecting his country to Wilkomania, the most destabilising condition known to sports medicine - one that bends the mind, blurs the vision and plays havoc with the judgement of otherwise rational human beings.

Ben Kay has been blamed for the occasional red rose mishap since he first squeezed his elongated frame into the boiler-house of the England scrum on the low-key tour of North America in 2001, the most obvious example being the catastrophic line-out collapse against Ireland at Twickenham last season. He has not, however, been publicly accused of subjecting his country to Wilkomania, the most destabilising condition known to sports medicine - one that bends the mind, blurs the vision and plays havoc with the judgement of otherwise rational human beings.

Until now. Today, we set the record straight. It was Kay's fault, all of it. Had the big Liverpudlian finished off a routine overlap in the early stages of the World Cup final in Sydney a little over 15 months ago, instead of fumbling the most catchable pass in the history of the game and dropping it over the Wallaby line, England would have had the thing won by the interval, that drop goal in that period of extra time would not have been required, and Jonny Wilkinson would still be a man of the people with a dodgy knee as opposed to a demi-god with a celestial limp. Ben, you will never know the trouble you've caused.

"Agreed," he said this week. "But it was a conspiracy from the start. I knew there was money in winning the World Cup, but I didn't want the fame that was bound to go with it. So I made this little arrangement with Jonny. He'd win the trophy and get all the publicity, I'd settle for a cut of the money and stay anonymous. It's worked out well, don't you think?"

Things are not working quite so well now, of course; the days when the red rose army could spurn stone-cold try-scoring opportunities without a second thought and still leave town with silverware amongst their luggage have long gone. In many ways, Kay's story since that night of nights in Australia is the story of the England team: a loss of authority and conviction, replaced by a debilitating mix of fragility, anxiety and rank bad luck. Astonishingly, both Andy Robinson, the head coach, and Jason Robinson, the captain, are saying that England are not in Dublin to "make up the numbers" against Ireland tomorrow - Sir Clive Woodward or Martin Johnson would have died the death of a thousand cuts rather than allow such a sentence to pass their lips - and Kay, the new leader of the forward pack, openly admits that confidence levels are somewhere down near the earth's core.

"There is an air of hesitancy about us," he admitted. "And there is no point in denying that things have changed since the break-up of the World Cup team. You have only to look at the standings in the Six Nations table to see the truth of it. This is tournament rugby we're engaged in here, just as we were in the World Cup, and we're not winning our matches. We're not as dominant as we were, plainly. Why? Because we are not playing with confidence, and our opponents, especially Ireland, are stronger than they were in, say, 2003. The Irish have probably taken our mantle as the dominant pack in the championship, so we have plenty to think about going into this game."

By common consent, Kay is one of England's serious thinkers. Indeed, he is positively Wilkinsonesque when it comes to exercising the grey matter in the build-up to an important contest. He ran the line-out operation during the World Cup, and the success he made of that vital responsibility was due in large part to the man-hours he put in. Renowned, not to say mocked, for his obsession with gadgetry - once nicknamed "M'Lud" on account of his late father, the High Court Judge Sir John Kay, he is now more frequently referred to as "the walking Palm-pilot" - he spent so long in darkened rooms watching videos of opposition line-out routines that it was a miracle he stayed awake during training. Now that he heads up the entire forward unit in all its responsibilities, his devotion to the pursuit of fine detail is greater still.

"Ben is a thinking man, and there are times when he can think too much about things," said Graham Rowntree, the England prop, who plays alongside Kay at Leicester. It was not an accusation he would ever have levelled at another Welford Roader of repute, the aforementioned king of the jungle, M Johnson Esq. Johnson could engage his competitive brain as well as the next pug-ugly forward and frequently did, but he was, and remains, the quintessential force of rugby nature, armed with an instinctive understanding both of the shifting dynamics of a match and the specific requirements of a given situation. To him, international rugby was the same as any other kind of rugby: a simple game, best played simply. Kay is not so blessed. Rather like his great rival for England's principal line-out role, Steve Borthwick of Bath, he cannot get by on impulse alone. He needs to plot, to calculate, to assess.

Rowntree also believes Kay needs regular rugby to perform at the optimum - a luxury largely denied him over recent months. Johnson's decision to retire from Test rugby after the World Cup meant Leicester had him all to themselves, and the emergence of the brilliant young lock Louis Deacon placed an unusually high premium on second-row berths at the club. Like the rest of the England team, Kay struggled for form during the 2004 Six Nations; unlike the rest, he was omitted from the summer tour of New Zealand and Australia. When the red rose squad regathered for the autumn internationals, Borthwick was given first bite at the cherry.

"In hindsight, I think there was some benefit in my missing the summer trip," he admitted. "I badly wanted to go on that tour, and if you'd spoken to me at the time, I'd have been livid. On reflection, I was definitely in need of a rest. When I started training again, I was full of renewed energy and confidence. There was a freshness about me that I'd lost somewhere along the line. But there was still the problem of getting back in the Leicester team. What with me playing a couple of poor games and Louis taking his chance fantastically well - he was our player of the year last season and rightly so - it was not an easy situation. It still isn't, to be honest. The competition for places at club level is very intense."

Welford Road - or rather, the Tigers' training headquarters in Oadby, on the outskirts of town - is the acknowledged epicentre of Premiership intensity. Scarcely a day goes by without a meaningful dust-up between two or more alleged colleagues, as the likes of Johnson and Rowntree readily confirm. Yet there remains a difference, however marginal, between the ever-increasing severity of rugby at club level and the extreme demands of life at the top end of the international game. Tomorrow, Kay will be playing for three things: his own sense of honour, England's continued status as the European team against which all others are judged, and, just to add another bucket of chilli powder to a mix already of vindaloo strength, a place on this summer's British and Irish Lions trek to New Zealand.

Ireland will pitch the "new Johnson", Paul O'Connell of Munster, and the wondrously athletic Malcolm O'Kelly, of Leinster, against the England second-rowers at Lansdowne Road, and if one of those two fails to go the distance, they will introduce the wild-eyed Donncha O'Callaghan to the equation. All three Irishmen are expected to waltz into the Lions party when Woodward reveals his hand on 11 April. Given the legitimate ambitions of Borthwick, Danny Grewcock, Simon Shaw, Robert Sidoli and Scott Murray, some very good players will find themselves staring at a sign reading "no room at the inn". Kay does not intend to be one of them.

"It's not so much the Lions thing," he said. "Anyone who takes his eye off the game in front of him and starts thinking about flying to Auckland in May is asking for trouble. What really motivates me this weekend is the reputation of O'Connell, O'Kelly and O'Callaghan. Everyone has talked them up as the best around, and any competitive spirit wants to test himself against the best. I want to see how good they are, as a way of measuring how good I am at this point in my career. It will be interesting, I'm sure.

"But it's not just about my performance as a lock, is it? We all have to take responsibility for our performances in this championship, and as pack leader, I have to accept more responsibility than most. I'm learning by the game, but I know enough already to realise that I've been too passive. When things have gone quiet, as they did in the second half against France, I haven't been forceful enough. As a result, we were bossed around and lost the match. People have been criticising Charlie Hodgson and the missed goal-kicks, but he hasn't been given the go-forward he needs to play the game he's there to play. If we forwards don't put him on the front foot, we should take at least some of the blame when we lose."

Too passive? Not forceful enough? Crikey, things have changed. Kay has it in him to dominate at international level; the fearsome Argentinians discovered that much in Buenos Aires in 2002, and were a whole lot less fearsome by the end of the afternoon as a result. The difference between this Leicester lock and his great predecessor in the England engine-room is that Johnson performed his dark deeds in every minute of every game, without missing a beat. If England are to survive here tomorrow, Kay must rediscover his own dark side, and revel in it.

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