"We were blown away" - England rugby legend Ben Kay on the toughest side he ever faced
"We know what you’re trying to do - trying to mess us about!"
Ben Kay was 23 years old when he was brought into the Leicester Tigers senior team. What followed was one of the most incredible five season stretches in rugby history.
Kay won a Premiership title with Tigers in his first season, repeated the dose the following season and again in 2001 and 2002. He also won two Heineken Cups in 2001 and 2002. In the midst of that, he made his England debut against Canada and would go on to win 29 of his first 30 Test outings.
The Liverpudlian hung up his boots just over a decade ago and is speaking with us as part of a promotional push for BT Sport ahead of the new Premiership season [kicking off with Bristol vs. Saracens on Friday]. Asked what it was like to be dropped into a team of driven winners, Kay smiles broadly and rubs his thick stubble.
"Ah look," he begins, "it was fantastic. Obviously, a lot of them were Leicester players as well, so it made it a lot easier to transition for me. A lot of familiar faces there.
"But there was almost that feeling there of being completely bullet-proof. As someone young into it… because obviously England had had a bit of success, but they had not always gotten themselves over the line. They were still starting to beat the Southern Hemisphere sides for the first time, and regularly. There was a bit of a non-realisation that it wasn’t always going to be like this!"
Kay believes his Leicester and England sides had so much success as they really well player-driven. Sure, they had some fine coaches but set-plays were not drilled into them. There were no patterns and fail-saves the had to adhere to. It was play what you see.
Rugby turned professional in late 1995, when Kay was at university. He joined Leicester when they were getting a handle on the step-up(s) from amateurism but still played with many men that had full-on trades and real world working experience on their CVs.
"I think Johnno [Martin Johnson] was still driving around in his Midland Bank company car, but he was fully professional!
"Darren Garforth had a scaffolding company, which I think he still has now. He had that with his brothers. Certainly, there was an element of guys that knew what you could be doing for a living instead, and this was a lot more fun. And there wasn’t quite as much moaning about training!
"There were mistakes but everyone else was making those mistakes and it didn’t actually matter. You look at some of our training programmes at the beginning and they were ridiculous brutal and hard, and the players would never agree to doing that now.
"But you didn’t know so you just made the best of it and, actually, sometimes when you over-train, it makes you mentally a bit tougher. The amount of games we won at Leicester and England we won late on, and I think it was because we were a bit tougher up top than the opposition. We probably thought we were a lot fitter but actually it was probably more psychological than physical."
One game that sums up just how ruthless and driven England were, during Ben Kay's early years, was the 2003 Grand Slam decider against Ireland, at Lansdowne Road.
Both sides, led by Clive Woodward and Eddie O'Sullivan, went into the final match with four wins from four. The Triple Crown, championship and Grand Slam were all on the line. A fat stack of chips.
"It wasn’t an easy game," Kay recalls, "but we played really, really well.
"Clive actually said, in the lead-up to the match, and it was a big thing for a coach to say - six months out from a World Cup. He said, ‘If you don’t win this game, you’re not going to win the World Cup, so don’t bother going down if you don’t win this game’. England had obviously lost a few Grand Slam deciders beforehand.
"I’m sure you’ve heard the story before, but the whole [President] Mary McAleese incident beforehand was down to… one of the things Clive had said was, ‘The Irish people are the nicest people in the world but, in a really nice way, they’ll be constantly trying to put you off your game. Or there will be the odd incident where it’s just this nice way’.
"And we had never heard how Ireland had always lined up on one side. We were kept waiting and then we’d run out and stood in the wrong place.
"Then this guy comes over and says, ‘You’re going to have to move’. With Clive ringing in our ears, Johnno went, ‘We’re not moving!’ We’re not moving. We know what you’re trying to do - trying to mess us about!
"And we just built this backs-against-the-wall mentality where we were just going to find a way to get it done. As I said, people look at the scoreline and think Ireland didn’t play well that day. It was just that we played really, really well. I think that was absolutely massive for us."
The red carpet controversy led to Ireland lining up closest to the tricolour but out on the grass. It meant President Mary McAleese had to step off the red carpet and walk on the grass in her heels to greet the Irish team. The home fans were incensed. Former Ireland hooker Shane Byrne once recalled of Martin Johnson:
"His influence there, anyone less belligerent would have backed down and just gone over to the side they were meant to be on."
Ireland went 3-0 up in the game, after a David Humphreys drop goal, but a Lawrence Dallaglio try put England 7-3 ahead and they never looked back. It was 13-6 up until the final quarter but a Mike Tindall try burst the dam and England went on to win 42-6.
There was one more challenge laid down by Woodward before the England squad broke for a short summer break ahead of the 2003 World Cup.
"Backing that up result against Ireland," Kay continues, "the win against New Zealand, when we went down to six men [in the pack] was big.
"There would always have been people saying, ‘Well, you can beat them at Twickenham when you’re nice and comfortable’, but we went down to New Zealand and Australia. Playing away from home and at the end of our season, when you’re knackered and they are meant to be at their prime. Beating them in those circumstances, and Australia as well, I think that sort of sent a psychological signal to everyone in the world."
The signal was sent and Woodward's men had it reverberating again, five months on, when they won the World Cup in Australia. Four league titles, two European Cups and a World Cup - not bad going in the space of 50 months.
If those Leicester and England teams were the best it ever got for Kay, the opposition side that left the deepest impression were the New Zealand outfit he faced when on British & Irish Lions duty in 2005.
"I remember, and this is a long time ago and us having this conversation, having a chat with Martin Johnson, who was there [with the Lions in 1993]. He didn’t play [in 2005] but he said that was the best New Zealand team he had ever seen. Now, maybe it’s been surpassed since then, but certainly the quality of that team was out of this world.
"You did feel, in the build-up to it, ‘This is going to be tough’. Then with that First Test performance, we were blown away. Then, obviously, the Dan Carter game in Wellington as well. Everything clicked for them but I personally believe that that was them at their best. But I’m sure that there are a lot of Kiwi fans that disagree."
Ben Kay served on the Leicester Tigers board of directors from 2014 up until this year and works with an advertising firm in London. He is also part of the BT Sport team that cover Premiership and European rugby.
Although he covered games alongside the likes of Dallaglio, Brian O'Driscoll, Ugo Monye and host Craig Doyle, last season, he is excited to get back at it - starting this Friday - in front of packed-out stadiums again.
"I'm really excited," he says, "but if anything came out of that Lions Tour, for me, it was how down everyone was about the quality of the game, and Test matches. Whereas, it was actually pretty similar to what you get in a Test match against South Africa and some Lions Tours.
"But, subconsciously in your mind, because there was no atmosphere in the stadium and flashes up to the tens of thousands of the fans in the stadium, it just had such a detrimental effect, and we all thought, ‘Oh this is rubbish’.
"I do think the fans play such a big part in creating that drama, and the quality of play is sometimes just the icing on the cake."
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