As an ex-England player with 62 caps to his name, Ben Kay is well placed to cast predictions for the upcoming Six Nations championship, and the current BT Sport pundit says this year’s tournament is more difficult to predict than ever.
“I think the whole tournament’s very difficult to predict this year, partly because of where the teams are in their own development, but partly because of the way the fixtures have landed,” said Kay.
“There’s no one team that has got it really easy. Wales have to go to Ireland and England, and England probably have one of the best fixture lists if they can get over the first game this weekend. So it’s all important for the whole shape of the championship who wins at the weekend.”
Indeed this season’s Le Crunch has fallen at such a time – the opening weekend – that it could well define the rest of the tournament. France play Italy the weekend after while England have Scotland – not necessarily easy games, but ones they should be winning. The winner of this weekend’s fixture should head into the third round with two wins under their belt, well on their way to challenging for the title.
“France as well have a fairly good fixture list – their tough game will be away at Wales,” he said. “This year, I don’t think think anyone will win the Grand Slam. You can never say never – there are teams that are capable of winning away from home, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if it was won on points.”
With so much riding on this weekend, some people have expressed surprise that Stuart Lancaster has entrusted such a youthful team with such great responsibility. Kay is of the opinion, however, that with the backline failing to spark in the autumn, it is time for change. If you are good enough, you are old enough.
“You’ve got to do it at some point, if you want to see these guys play. The English backline hasn’t really been functioning that well – some players who’ve been performing brilliantly individually like Mike Brown, but it’s not as though he’s changing a unit that’s playing particularly well at the moment, and he’s got the experience of the forward pack.”
Kay currently works as a pundit for BT Sport, and is relishing his new role and the freedom it has brought with it.
“It’s nice and relaxed, and it’s enjoyable to have more people to bounce things off. I think we’ve got the balance right and there are a few little innovations that we’ve tried – some of them have stayed and some of them haven’t, but certainly we’re not going to rest on our laurels, we’re going to keep trying to push it.
“We’re probably quite fortunate that as a channel, obviously because of the figures involved and there being a lot of emphasis on the football, they’ve been very relaxed about letting us take the lead, and I think that’s quite important with rugby. We’re all rugby people and rugby fans, so it’s the kind of stuff we’d want to watch if we were at home.”
Back to England matters, and Kay says he is impressed with the current duo plying their trade in his area of expertise – the engine room. He was renowned as a shrewd line-out operator, once famously learning to count to ten in Afrikaans in order to crack the Springboks’ line-out codes at the World Cup.
The closest thing England have these days is Geoff Parling, but with the Leicester man out injured the responsibilities have fallen to Courtney Lawes. Kay has been enthused by what he has seen of the abrasive Lawes, and his combination with workhorse Joe Launchbury.
“I think they’re good – Lawes obviously has really improved his ability to call the line-out. I still think Geoff Parling will have a lot to offer England, whether it’s off the bench or not.
“You’ll tend to find over a four year period, be it through injury or because of changes in form, if you’ve got three good guys in one position then changes will be made. He’s still got the ability to come back in when fit.
“I’ve absolutely no problem with those two (Lawes and Launchbury) playing together. As a young unit together, they look exceptional, and they’ll only grow from playing more together.
“Although they are both phyiscal players, they are slightly different in style, in that Launchbury is slightly more direct with ball in hand. A lot of his breaks come down the middle, through rucks and in congested areas.
“Courtney’s really improved his carrying game, but you tend to see him out in the centres carrying as an extra forward runner.
“Tackling-wise, the great thing for me is that Launchbury doesn’t tend to make very many mistakes at all. Courtney’s tackling was always a strength – his ability to make the big hit – but he’s tempered that now with not missing as many. ”
In the aggressive atmosphere of the Stade de France, not a single one can afford to be missed this weekend. It should be a cracker.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Ben Kay is part of the Rugby Tonight panel which airs Wednesdays at 9pm on BT Sport