In an exclusive Q&A with sports betting firm Betway, former England lock Ben Kay previews the 2023 Six Nations and looks ahead to the World Cup.
What was your initial reaction to the sacking of Eddie Jones?
I backed Eddie early on, but I just felt it had become about how clever he was, rather than how clever the team was. I’ve compared him before to Jose Mourinho, and actually, at the beginning, sometimes that worked for the team, because he took some of the heat off from the media.
He was obviously very, very successful, but he did go through a lot of backroom staff. He didn’t always treat all of the players that well, particularly some of the young ones that he brought in and then sort of jettisoned and affected their career. I felt it was probably the right decision, to be honest.
Obviously, it’s not ideal being this close to a World Cup, but I think Steve Borthwick was the favourite to take over from Eddie post-World Cup, so I think it’s just accelerated that process.
Why do you think the RFU were driven to such a big decision in a World Cup year?
I don’t think it was one issue. He’d obviously made some fairly public comments. His response to some of the criticism was to challenge the RFU and say, “I’m in charge here,” and I don’t think that went down particularly well.
I genuinely believe, having spoken to a couple of people, that the players were always on his side. I’m not saying all the players, but the majority of the players were on his side. Even at the end, quite a lot of them still were, and they all appreciated what he’d done for them. But you also got the impression that there were some slight changes, particularly with how some of their mates had been treated.
We wouldn’t have won the World Cup in ’03 if we hadn’t had such good relationships with our off-field staff. The people that know how to get the best out of you, not just coaches but physios, doctors, fitness staff, they learn what you’re like as an individual, they learn what triggers get the best performance out of you. If that’s constantly changing, then I don’t think you get that club feel, I don’t think you get that sense of what people are going to do.
Some of the selections on the field had started to go a little bit like that as well. I know this was preparation for the World Cup, but there were some strange selections. As soon as you start losing confidence, you need a little bit of coherency and a little bit of time together to sort it out.
The worry now is that he’s gone to Australia, and I’m sure he’ll have an immediate bounce effect. I don’t think Australia will win the World Cup, but they could decide who doesn’t win it.
What did you make of Australia’s decision to hire Jones?
I think he’ll be great for them initially. He will whip them into shape. I don’t think they’re far off, but they have been really inconsistent. Certainly, in his first years in charge of England, he got that consistency right up there.
For him to have an effect on Australia, it may be a little bit close to the World Cup. I say they’re not going to win the World Cup, they are contenders, of course they are, but I think there are stronger contenders.
Mind you, I think there’s stronger contenders than England, but if Borthwick can have the same sort of effect that he had on Leicester and focus on the areas that are most important to winning, then you never know.
They’re all fortunate that no team bar France and Ireland, who still have some issues themselves, are clear favourites. I don’t think the competition is as far ahead as in many World Cup years.
What was Steve Borthwick like as a teammate and a player?
Completely what you’d imagine. Very detailed in his off-field analysis, very detailed in doing all the extras that not all players do. As a result, he expects that from his team, from his players. He gives them that level of detail and makes sure that they’re doing the same things.
He is also constantly trying to make himself better. That’s very useful. He’s not got an ego at all, which I think slightly different to the last bloke, and I think will be a good thing. He’s quite happy to sit in the background, and take the plaudits from what the players are doing, rather than it all being down to how clever he is.
Was it always obvious that he would go into coaching and succeed?
I think so. You can’t predict success – there’s coaches who you expect to succeed and don’t, and then there’s guys who are the opposite. I think if you told the Leicester forwards what sort of career Richard Cockerill would have had when he was playing, they’d all have laughed at you. He was an aggressive, loose player, but he became a very disciplined coach.
But yes, Steve had all the credentials to be a great coach. For all he achieved, there’s something to be said for the fact that the biggest name players, or the most talented players, often don’t make it as coaches. They can’t understand the thought process because it comes naturally to them, and they can’t explain it to other people. Whereas Steve was one of those guys who was constantly having to work on his game to make himself better, and I think that’s given him a really good way of speaking to players, because he understands how to make the best out of yourself.
What will Kevin Sinfield bring to the role of defence coach?
He’ll have huge respect, obviously from the stuff he’s done charity-wise, but he’s also just one of those people that, as soon as you meet him, he’s got this aura about him. He’s a very good people person. Although Borthwick gets on well with his players, I think one of the areas he’s had to work on, and has done it very well, is with social relationships and that side of it, whereas there’s a natural warmth and affinity that players seem to have to Kevin Sinfield.
I spoke to a few of the people around Leicester and they were saying that one of the things you feel with Kevin Sinfield is you’re almost letting down your favourite uncle if you don’t make your tackle. There’s no shouting with him, there’s not a huge bollocking. He’ll just say, “I need you to make that tackle for me.” And it’s like, “I will, for you.”
Every team needs people that can walk into a changing room and light it up. You can’t put your finger on why they’re so good. When the chips are down, someone that just lifts the mood a little bit, not even because trying to, just their general presence does it. I think Kevin Sinfield has potentially got that sort of character.
I also think Borthwick has been really clever by bringing in Nick Evans for this, as well. Obviously, we don’t know whether it’ll work yet, and that’s probably why it’s a short-term contract, but I think if you look at Nick, he’s very much a different personality. He’s a very sunshiny guy and is another one that could lift the mood. He’ll be a good foil for Steve, and he’ll be looking to play the attacking brand of rugby that we’re used to seeing with Harlequins.
How do you expect England’s style of play to change under the new coaching staff?
I don’t. People’s perception of your game plan is based on three or four moments in a game. You can play the most negative, statistically-based game plan, but you take your chances to score tries and suddenly everyone goes ‘Oh, why can’t we attack like that team?’ New Zealand used to do it, back around 2005 when they were beating everyone. They’d kick more than anyone else, but when they got an opportunity, they’d go through the gears and tear you apart.
I don’t think they need to change much. You see teams like Northampton or Harlequins in the league, and I don’t think you can play that style at Test level and get away with it. Both those teams play in a league system and when you’re challenged psychologically, you can fall apart. If that happens in a Six Nations or a World Cup, it’s fatal. You don’t have the whole season to have these ups and downs. That’s why Test rugby is a little bit more conservative in some respects.
Look at South Africa in the World Cup final, everyone said they played us off the park. They had two wingers that were absolutely amazing and tore us to pieces, but apart from that, they were just really horrible to play against and difficult to beat. They won the physical battle, and then those guys had a bit more time to play.
How would you assess the strengths and weaknesses of the England squad?
I’m happy with it. The one area we were really worried about, and it’s come back to bite us, is hooker because Luke Cowan-Dickie is out long-term, then Jamie George got injured. Everyone’s very aware that we can’t rush him back. So, that’s one area that England are very short. It creates opportunities for the guys coming in, but that’s an area of concern.
Another big area that England needs to sort out now, but also with a view to the World Cup, is obviously the midfield. At the moment it’s Manu [Tuilagi] vs Dan Kelly. I know Borthwick really likes Dan Kelly, but Manu still puts that fear factor in the opposition and occupies a lot of the mental space of defences, even if he’s not getting the ball. I don’t think he’s in his best run of form but there have been glimpses at midway through this season. Ollie Lawrence coming in has been tearing up trees for Bath.
I think he might go Farrell at 10, but I can’t be sure, with Marcus on the bench to come on and change the game if they need it. But equally, he could just slide Owen over to 12 because they’ve obviously played so much together. I also think that George Ford is likely to play in the Premiership Cup and I think they’ll rush him back in because Kevin Sinfield has been talking about how important he is in the environment, even if he’s not playing. He’s an on-field coach.
In the back row, obviously Tom Curry being out is huge, and Lawes as well, but it gives us an opportunity to look at some other people. Ben Curry looks like he might come in. It’ll give us an indication into Borthwick’s game plan, the balance of the back row that he picks. I think Dombrandt will probably get the nod over Simmonds, with Simmonds’ pace to come off the bench. I think he might change it slightly and have Willis as the jackler from six, and then Ben Curry as that hybrid, a good ball carrier and able to jackal as well. The only caveat to that is Willis playing in Toulouse means he hasn’t been able to complete the whole training camp, so that might change things slightly. Ben Earl, I’ve been championing him for so long, and you wonder if he’ll being him off the bench as an impact player. Ludlam’s playing really well as well, and can cover three positions. It’s so difficult to read that decision, but it will certainly give us a big indication of how he’s going to play.
The other one is on the wing, having got rid of May and Nowell. If he wants to take some of these uncapped players, he’s got to try them. Hassell-Collins has been brilliant, Murley has as well. Then he’s got Malins and Freeman, who have had some international experience, but you think at least one of Murley or Hassell-Collins needs to be involved somewhere. Whether he waits for Italy for that, who knows, but if you’re going to put bolters in the squad, you have to test them at Test level before you get to a World Cup.
Which of the less experienced players are you most looking forward to watching?
Ben Earl is the one that I really wanted to see, but I just don’t think we’re going to see him start. Whether he’s in there or not, I think he has just been absolutely fantastic.
It’s one of those where there’s a few players, take Ben Curry for an example. Ben Curry was picked before Tom Curry, and then got injured. Tom got his shot and took it and became the first name on the team sheet. The same thing could happen now. Someone gets an injury and it gives Ollie Lawrence the chance to start and he could make himself undroppable. One of the wings, something could fall their way and they could score a wonder try, and suddenly they become first choice.
Particularly at the beginning of your journey, if that happens, the confidence it gives you, you almost feel a bit bulletproof. In some of those more individual positions like wing, sometimes not knowing what can go wrong in international rugby is a good thing. Sometimes you feel that some of the finishers, they start almost overthinking the game. You compare that to when they first came into the team and they were beating everyone. Someone could get their shot, take it, and then they’re embedded for the World Cup.
What did you make of the decision to bring back Warren Gatland for Wales?
If they were going to make the change, he was the clear candidate. He’s the sort of character, as we’ve mentioned with Eddie, that can have an immediate bounce effect. He’s very confident. Welsh rugby is going through a tough time at the moment financially with everything that’s happened, so they need someone with broad enough shoulders to be able to separate all of that and the rugby. With the way he deals with the media, I just think he’s ideal for them.
He’s got a huge selection headaches, particularly at seven. You’ve got Morgan, Reffell, Tipuric, who were all outstanding in the European Cup. Does he go for a Morgan, who’s a big, heavy ball carrier, or does he go for Reffell to do that Sam Warburton role? That was so successful for him before with Wales. I would definitely do that, but Morgan is just outstanding as a carrier.
Gatland will be fantastic for what they need right now, just being able to distance all the off-field stuff from the on-field stuff. He’ll give Wales that shot in the arm with his demeanour and his style. I think they would have been in a hurry to sign that deal, knowing that Eddie Jones might have been on the way out.
What do you think went wrong with Wayne Pivac?
Sometimes it doesn’t click. The one thing I would say, is that Wales under Warren punched above their weight. It will have been difficult for someone like Pivac to come in and match that. It was almost like they had just started to go over the hill, similar to when all the guys started retiring from England’s early-century team. You’ve got Alun Wyn Jones still there, but he’s not going to be there for much longer. Jamie Roberts has gone, Warburton, Gethin Jenkins, they were all so iconic and so good. They just had a brilliant relationship with each other.
When you’re in a rebuild, and you don’t have the benefit of having quite as much talent coming through to sort it out, it’s hard.
What’s your take on the new tackling laws announced by the RFU?
I know why it’s being done. For it to be so far-reaching without a trial is interesting. It seems to me to be a reaction to the legal side of it. I have concerns about it, but I think we might be missing where the benefits will come from.
I don’t think it’s anything to do with the tackle at all, I think the benefits will come from the fact that there’ll be less rucks. Because people can offload, or their hands will be free when they land after a tackle so they can pass off the floor, we’ll get less rucks. If there are less instances of rucks, you’re going to get less chances of head contact, less jacklers being in that position getting smashed there.
The worry from an ex-player’s point of view is taking away players’ ability to make decisions in the tackle. When we think of a tackle, we think of the perfect opportunity to make a tackle. But often it’s not the perfect opportunity, and that’s why some of the head collisions occur.
I also think there’s a massive issue that needs addressing, which is ball carriers bending at the waist. That can cause the biggest problems. If they do that, it can be very, very difficult to make safe tackles and wrap your arms because as soon as you’re going in that low, you’re trying to get your arms in an unnatural position. Some people don’t have the shoulder flexibility to do it.
I totally understand why the community game is upset because they don’t feel that they’ve been consulted on it or even warned that it might be coming in. It’s complete minefield because you have people that are willing to take certain risk. When people go horse riding, or even if you go out on a bike, there’s an element of risk and you accept that. Having said that, we don’t live in that sort of society anymore. Unfortunately, games could get closed down by legal cases. I would have liked to have seen a trial of it before it was blanket rolled out just to see what the differences were.
I think it’s coming in the elite game, I think it’ll come fairly quickly. I wonder if the right decision maybe should have been below ball height.
Who do you think is going to win the Six Nations?
I don’t think anyone is going to get the Grand Slam. I might be wrong, but I think teams are close so it will be very easy to take wins off each other. France and Ireland are obviously favourites. I’ve spoken to a couple of people in Ireland who aren’t quite as confident as everyone else seems to be, in that they need to be at 100 per cent. At the moment they are, but any drop off and there’s not a lot below the surface. But I just think with that Leinster influence, how well they’re playing, I’m going to go with Ireland.
Who is going to win Player of the Tournament?
I’ll go with Tommy Reffell. And I don’t even know if he’ll start. Just the way he’s been playing in the last few weeks, when he’s been making about six or seven turnovers a game. That could be a huge story, because suddenly Gatland gets that bounce he wants if they win a couple early on.
How do you rate European hopes in the upcoming World Cup?
This is the most open World Cup there’s ever been. People writing New Zealand off are stupid. I think there’s six teams that could win it. Of those, three are European. It’s as strong a European group as there’s been.
I was there when France won the Grand Slam last year, and the atmosphere was off-the-charts amazing. I was also there when we beat them in 2007 in the semi-final and, halfway through the game, the crowd turned on them and we knew we’d got it. If they can play the brand that they’ve been playing, then that wave of emotion puts them favourites. Their one worry is that they’ve got a few injuries going into the Six Nations. [Jonathan] Danty, [Cameron] Woki, [Gabin] Villiere, they’re all big players for them. But it almost feels a little bit like London 2012 with Antoine Dupont as your Jessica Ennis, that poster player that everything falls into place behind.
So, I’d probably make them favourites, with Ireland very close behind. You know South Africa will come back into contention just because their style suits World Cups, where the pressure is massively on. They’d be my top three at the moment but there’s another three sitting just underneath, waiting.