Speaking last week, former England lock and now ESPN pundit Ben Kay openly discusses the major stories in the game over the last month including this week’s J.P. Morgan Rugby 7s competition that starts on Friday at The Stoop.
“I think it’s a brilliant opportunity for fans to get ready for the new season. Hopefully the weather might change and we will actually get some proper Sevens weather, but my experiences of it over the last couple of seasons have been very positive. There is a lot of great attacking rugby but also plenty of players who are trying to push through into the first team side for the new season.”
“It gives young players the exposure of playing in front of a crowd and a chance to try things without being under the pressure of playing in a game that would affect the whole club in terms of relegation or making the playoffs. Particularly in this country, those pressures can sometimes stifle the development of our players and this is a chance to play without that.”
Looking back on England’s tour to South Africa, Kay feels that despite losing the Test series 2-0 with a draw in the final Test, that England missed a big opportunity and should have won the series.
“A lot of people have been positive about drawing the final test, but personally I’m bitterly disappointed. I’m not being negative towards them, but the reason I’m disappointed is because I think they could have won that series. Two or three years ago going down and drawing a test would have been regarded as a reasonable effort, but not now. Stuart Lancaster will be really disappointed, because where England are at the moment after a very quick progression, they should have beaten South Africa in at least one game. Apart from the middle game the scores were close and I think they will learn from it and how to close out those matches.”
“They matched South Africa up front in the 1st Test, which considering there was probably quite a lot of fear in the changing room beforehand was good. They then lost the intensity a bit when that fear went away for the second half, with South Africa then completely controlling the 2nd Test and that showed how important the mental aspect is. I was really disappointed that Toby Flood went off when he did in the final Test, because Owen Farrell had his poorest couple of games. I would have to loved to see Flood finish it off with Danny Care.”
“I really rate Ben Youngs as a rugby player but some of his management isn’t as good as Care’s and he’s always looking for space around the breakdown, but what that does is cut down all the space outside him. Jonathan Joseph’s debuts were pretty disappointing but that was down to the lack of ball coming from midfield. There are a few question marks now with players like Farrell, who before we’d touted as the next Jonny Wilkinson and England’s fly-half for as long as he wanted to be. It was the first time we’d seen him without the coaching of his dad [Andy Farrell] and I just wonder whether that had an impact.”
“Mike Catt was a positive addition. His time on the tour went well and people were very receptive to him and his ideas. I would be surprised if he didn’t stay because he needs to know quickly if not so he can job hunt. He is trying to improve the skill level of the players, which I’m sure he thinks at the moment is not quite where it should be for international rugby, and I think he would be absolutely ideal for that role. not just for his brain but also his management and communication skills.”
“Geoff Parling was exceptional in the 1st Test but the lineout did not go so well in the other two. He’s been outstanding since he got the starting spot but those weren’t his best matches. They went for Botha and Parling for the balance of physicality and lineout management but when Tom Palmer came in for the final Test he was Man of the Match for me and I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t a contender to start now.”
“A weakness in his game though is his lineout management, but he is going back to Wasps and working with one of the best lineout managers I’ve ever seen in Marco Wentzel, so if Marco helps improve that aspect of his game then Palmer could be England’s starting number 5. To be honest, there is plenty of talent in every area apart from hooker. Lee Mears has now retired so you really have only got Dylan [Hartley] there which is why the development of Tom Youngs is so important.”
Finally, Kay offered his opinion on London Welsh and the imminent new start in the Aviva Premiership.
“It sounds like I’m very negative on it, but I’m not. From a playing and club side I can totally see that they deserve to be there – they fulfilled the criteria and if we are going to have promotion and relegation it has to happen. My only concern would be if we have another London Scottish or Richmond situation where they come up, try to be a professional outfit for a couple of years and then the money starts to dry up. The Kassam is a great stadium but I don’t see where the support is going to come from – it’s an hour from their home support and they’re going right into the four catchment areas of supporters for London Irish, Gloucester, London Wasps and Northampton. Students won’t be the answer though obviously they will tap into that market and they will try to bring over some of the Oxford United fans, but we’ve never seen that work in the past with the football supporters following the rugby team.”
“That being said, everyone has to get behind them, but it does highlight the disparity in income between the Premiership club’s money, because everyone should get the same. History dictates that the most likely thing to happen is that team that comes up will go back down and I think that’s more than likely. Stranger things have happened though and we will see who they recruit over the summer. The delay has meant that other sides have got the march on them in that area but hopefully they can put together a competitive squad and go on a run like Exeter’s in 2010/2011.”
by Ben Coles