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rugby-union | Friday, January 28, 2022 10:10 AM (Revised at: Friday, January 28, 2022 11:07 PM)

Talking Six Nations Rugby with....Ben Kay: France, Ireland and England Enter As Favourites

Talking Six Nations Rugby with....Ben Kay: France, Ireland and England Enter As Favourites
Paul Harding / Alamy Stock Photo

With the 2022 Six Nations tournament set to begin next week, today we talk with English Rugby World Cup champion and former Leicester Tigers second row forward Ben Kay.

Where are England’s strengths and what/who are you most looking forward to watching?

“Their strengths traditionally are the set pieces, the scrum and the line-out. I wouldn’t expect that to be any different this year. I think what’s going to be really interesting is without some of their centres available, so no Manu Tuilagi and no Owen Ferrel, what combination does he (Eddie Jones) pick, and how quick do they gel together. So that’s going to be really interesting.”

“Marcus Smith, regardless of which role he occupies, whether he comes off the bench, he’s one of those players that is developing a reputation of what I call “the gasps players”. I was lucky enough to play with Jason Robinson, and every time he got the ball at Twickenham, you’d hear 80.000 people take a huge intake of breath, because they knew something exciting was going to happen. I think Marcus Smith is developing that reputation and cult status with the fans. If he comes off the bench, you’ll hear a ripple before he comes onto the pitch as people see him take his tracksuit off, of 80.000 people sort of nudging each other and saying ‘he’s coming on, he’s coming on’. So I think, to do what he does at club level, there is a step up to the international scene. He has proven he’s got the mentality to do it already, with his games in finals and the opportunities he has had.”

“But it’s still for some people, not me, that the jury is out as to whether he can be as big a success at international level as he is at club level, and I can’t wait to see that start to come to fruition.”

Who does he think England will start at 10? Do you think George Ford’s form for Leicester Tigers means he should start, even though he wasn’t originally in the squad?

“However things are going, under normal circumstances, I’d have Marcus Smith starting. The only thing is, Eddie Jones re-termed the name of the bench, “The Finishers”, because they’re so integral, when you bring them on and the impact they have, that he didn’t want it to be seen as a demotion if you are put on the bench, but it still is. Players won’t be able to handle that. For Macrus Smith being in the driver’s seat and playing so well at the moment, if he was then put on the bench, it would be a massive punch in the ribs for him. He’d feel it. I’m sure he’d deal with it very very well.“

“The only reason why I wouldn’t do that, or why Eddie might not do that, knowing how Eddie is, is that you look statistically at how both those players (George Ford and Marcus Smith) play and how their teams play, and George Ford for Leicester has been very good at controlling. Yes he has had to chase the game a bit at the end of games and done it very well, and Leicester has come out on top. But Harlequins F.C. are known as the team that pinch the win at the end of a game.”

“So in that case, statistically how it is; do you play George Ford, when it’s a bit tighter early on in the game, play in the right areas of the field, and then bring Marcus Smith on when everyone is fatigued with 30 minutes to go, to run the show and score all the points at the back end of the game? So that could be in his mind, well actually if you had to choose one to win us the game at the end, you’d go for Marcus Smith.”

Give us three backs we won’t have heard of who will be among the tries at this year’s tournament?

“So this is obviously very subjective, but obviously there are a lot of people that follow rugby that have heard of them before. It’s a difficult one.”

“I think I’ll go for a guy called Melvyn Jamiet who is the fullback from France. This guy had a really good Autumn (Nations Series). He plays for Perpignan, he’s only played 12 matches for Perpignan this year, but he’s beaten 28 defenders and made 8 clean breaks for them in just 12 appearances, so he has definitely got the ability, and particularly with the focus that will be on the strength of the French 9 and 10, that might create a little more space for him out wide. He’s also their goalkicker, which is another reason for putting him in the squad. A very good goalkicker. So I’ll go for Melvyn Jamiet for France.”

“I think it all depends on who’s picked, but either one of them, of the bench for England, of the two 9s. I think it will be Harry Randall, because Raffi Quirke has been injured. So I’ll go for Harry Randall. Just a brilliant opportunist at the moment, particularly if he comes off the bench, and the defence is a bit tired, seeing opportunities in and around the ruck, to break and score himself. He’s been on fire for Bristol, so I’ll go for Harry Randall from England.”

“And then I think I’ll go with, a lot of people will have heard of, Hugo Keenan, and I think he’ll start, but again, he has the ability to score some tries. But if he gets a shot, there is a new guy into the Ireland squad called Mike (Michael) Lowry and he is a very very good attacking fullback for Ulster. So if there’s an injury to Keenan or Lowry gets his shot, I’ll go with him.”

Hugo Keenan in action with New Zealand's David Havili

REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

Do you think this is the most competitive tournament in years, and who do you think will finish first, second and third, and in what order?

“I think it’s been really competitive for a number of years. We’ve also seen teams that maybe we were a little bit surprised by, putting in the performances and getting a win that we weren’t expecting when we got round to it, I think, with where the teams are at the moment, this is as competitive a Six Nations as you can get.”

“Each team is in a different place in terms of its development. They’re all looking ahead to the next World Cup in France. There’s still an element of making sure that they’re not necessarily peaking now but obviously they still want to win the tournament but they have to look ahead to two years time and make sure they’re as competitive as possible then as well.”

“There might be some selections that raise a few eyebrows.”

“I would certainly make the French team favourites but with a big caveat that it’s still a relatively young, inexperienced team. They beat the All-Blacks this year and absolutely blew them away. A huge thrashing of the All-Blacks which not many people have to their name. Having said that, when you’re a young side, particularly when you’re so attack focused, you can then have bad days at the office as well. What’s important, ahead of 2023, is that they suffer some of those, and it almost builds them up into a stronger group that they know they can dig out victories when things aren’t going their way.”

“I’d make France favourites, particularly because you look at the fixture list and it suits them. They’ve probably got better games at home and that’s why I’d certainly make France favourites.”

“Then it’s a bit of a toss of a coin for second place. So much depends on the first weekend. Again, because of the fixtures, and who’s at home and who’s away, I’d probably make Ireland the second-favourites and then England, third-favourites.”

“Having said that, England could easily leapfrog over Ireland. Scotland, with the squad they have as well, could make a few surprises and get up into second place.”

“It is the most competitive Six Nations in a long time. My very finger in the air guess at the moment would be France, then Ireland, then England.”

Do Wales have what it takes to clinch a historic Six Nations double this year, with so many players out injured?

“Wales absolutely do have the ability. The thing about Wales, some of the injuries, they still have a pretty stellar backline and a backline that can take anyone on. They’re a little bit green in the forward pack in places and there aren’t necessarily many names in that forward pack that you could say would be competing for a World XV place.”

“Having said that, this tournament is all about opportunities. Lot of those guys will be saying, one good Six Nations and suddenly people are talking about them as great players. So, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Wales were up near the top and put in a decent performance against one of France, Ireland, England and turn them over but I’ll leave them where they are for now.”

The bookies make it odds on the Grand Slam won’t be achieved this year? Are they right or wrong?

“The Grand Slam is really really difficult. It’s very difficult to win all your games particularly because it’s home and away and everyone is trying to play different styles, week to week you have to change quickly. It’s a tough ask.”

“The Six Nations is a massive tournament about momentum. You don’t want, sort of, too easy a win in your first weekend. But if you get a decent win and play well, suddenly the confidence throughout the squad shoots up.“

“Because the big problem is that these players have is that they come together and go straight into it as a team. When you’re with your club, you have warm-up games leading into the main season and you develop that momentum there. It’s week-to-week and the longevity of the season means even if you don’t start that well, you can find form and then feed off your confidence.”

“The Six Nations is so pressurised. You get one shot at a team. It’s not like the Rugby Championship in the Southern Hemisphere where they play each other more than once.”

“It’s as close in a league format as you can get to knockout rugby and it’s done over five weekends and you’ve got to hit the ground running.”

“Someone could do the Grand Slam but it’s more likely that they won’t.”

Which teams will be hardest to score points against this year?

“Tough question.“

“I think England have got a new defence coach, Anthony Seibold. He will obviously want to make an impact. I think John Mitchell had left England’s defence in quite a good place but Seibold won’t want to reinvent the wheel. He’ll want to tag on extra bits to that, I think. I don’t think there’s time to immediately throw everything out of the window that’s been done before.”

“So that’ll be interesting.”

“For all the talk about France’s attacking play, which is the highlight at the moment, Shaun Edwards now has had a few years. He did amazing things with the Welsh defence. The French defence is a lot, lot better since he’s taken over but now it’s almost his own team. For a while as a coach, you come in and as I said with Seibold and Mitchell, you try to sort of keep the bits that are good and change the bits that you think could be better.”

“I love the appointment of Shaun Edwards for France. I think he’s a fantastic coach, not only a coach but he’s almost a psychologist, which defence coaches often have to be. His communication skills in French will be better than when he took over, now. So he’ll be a better coach for them. I can just see, because everyone’s talking about the attack, they could stun everyone with the best defence in the tournament.”

Scotland's Finn Russell in action

REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

Italy games aside, do you think this year’s tournament will be high-scoring?

“Yes, I do.”

“Partly that’s because that’s the way the game is going. World Rugby is trying to reduce the number of collisions for welfare reasons and also entertainment reasons. Some of that means, every law, I think, that’s been passed recently, has made the game easier to attack.”

“Trying to get rid of the high tackle means the room for error is a lot less. They have to tackle lower which means it’s easier to make offloads out of the tackle and pass out of the tackle. Whereas before when they were hitting higher, the ball gets snarled up.”

“There’s the new 50/22 law which means that teams have to drop an extra player back to mark a kick because if the ball is kicked from your own half and goes in the opposition’s 22, you get the throw-in to the lineout. It’s almost like winning a penalty in your own half.”

“There’s a number of reasons why the game’s gotten that way and as a result, in the club game, which is obviously feeding all the international teams, we’re seeing more attacking rugby.”

“But you look at who’s available, particularly as the 10s, for each of the teams and they’re attacking players.”

“Finn Russell, you won’t get a more attacking 10 than him. Marcus Smith or George Ford, particularly Smith, hugely exciting attacking 10.”

“Even Dan Biggar who was a quite conservative 10, has moved to Northampton, with Chris Boyd who are one of the most attacking teams in the Premiership. So he’s having to do that.”

“France with the host of stars they have around 9 and 10, particularly (Antoine) DuPont who’s the world’s best player at the moment, at 9. (Matthieu) Galibert or (Romain) Ntamack at 10 – you’ve got very very attacking players that are gonna want to lead the game that way.”

What do you think about the squad that Eddie Jones has picked? With Owen Farrell injured, do you think they lack leadership, and who should be the new captain? Does this mean that England focuses more on the World Cup in 2023 rather than the Six Nations?

“Eddie Jones had his experiment with playing more conservative rugby and it didn’t work. So I think we’re all expecting England to be more attack focused.”

“Leadership’s been a problem for England. It’s been one of the things that was highlighted when they got knocked out of the World Cup in 2015.”

“There are plenty of hugely experienced players (in the England squad) and leadership’s done in different ways. It’s not necessarily the shouty guy that the camera zooms in on. And Owen Farrell, obviously, it’s his drive that’s his main leading point I think. His will to win.”

“There’s plenty of guys that maybe have that will to win, but in a different way. You sometimes sort of think about Eddie Jones and how he makes sure that he’s delegating. He is very much a guy that wants to be in charge of his team. “

“If he heard me saying that he would go -‘Mate, what are you talking about? You’ve never been in one of our sessions’ and that’s absolutely right.”

“All you want from Eddie Jones is being an enabler. I don’t mind how he is but you want to enable those players to come out of their shell and not squash them. It’s that delicate balance between carrot and stick, isn’t it.”

“I think definitely people can do that (lead England).“

“Courtney Lawes, he’s not been training this week because of a head injury but no one’s expecting him not to be fit for the start of the Six Nations. He is, for me, nailed on to be the captain because I think he did a great job when Owen (Farrell) wasn’t available in the autumn.”

“He is a player with a huge amount of experience. He has a voice but it’s taken a while for people to actually encourage him to use it. You want your captain to be a player you can follow into battle and you, he’s always been a great player, look at how he’s developed his game over the years and become better at the areas he wasn’t necessarily known for. His ball carrying, he’s lost a bit of weight to nail down one position and that’s 6 and yeah I’d definitely have him as my captain.”

“I’m happy with it, with what’s available. I think injuries have taken a few bodies out that he would have wanted.”

“On the whole, it’s a good squad. There aren’t people in, or out, of it that we’re all saying – ‘oh, why hasn’t he picked him this year, we did for so long with Eddie Jones.’”

“What’s interesting, I guess, is, we’ve gone from not having many number 8s in the team, so him putting Tom Curry at number 8, to now we’ve got three guys playing at number 8 for their club in Sam Simmons, Alex Dombrandt and Alfie Barbeary at Wasps, the new kids that come through.”

“It’ll be really interesting how he squeezes those guys into the matchday squad. How many he puts in. Knowing Eddie, he might not even have any of them starting at 8 and you might have Tom Curry again. You might even see two of them on the bench, so two number 8s and they come on in slightly different positions and you can do that because Courtney Lawes plays 6 but can move up to the second row if necessary.”

“That’s a really interesting battle between three very attacking and high try-scoring number 8s. Who gets the nod to start and who gets the nod to finish the game.”

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