World Cup winner Ben Kay believes the notion of a radically different England side emerging like a butterfly from the chrysalis of their autumnal woes perhaps owes more to marketing spin than the reality of what we’ll see at BT Murrayfield on Saturday.
The legendary former lock is expecting the Eddie Jones era to open with evolution rather than revolution and likened the new coach to a smooth-talking troubleshooter taking the helm of an ailing business.
Kay said: “I think Eddie since he has come in has almost been like the new brand and marketing guy coming into a company that’s had a tough time and he’s very much trying to set the scene and take the pressure off the players. I do think it is a bit of a branding thing.
“A bit similar to the way Clive Woodward would set out the stall and say ‘this what we are and how we go about things’. I don’t actually think there will be a drastic change in terms of tactics.
“If you look at what England were trying to do at the World Cup, the blueprint was the first 60 minutes of the warm-up game against Ireland. That high pace at a level people can’t live with.
“What Eddie Jones will be good at is making everybody believe that there has been a big change in England and that they are an unstoppable force. That is what he’ll bring to the party.”
Kay was one of Woodward’s 2003 heroes, played two Lions Tests in 2005 and every minute of the run to the following World Cup final in 2007. He has been impressed with the strides Scotland have made under Vern Cotter since the Wooden Spoon of the 2015 Six Nations.
“It’s been very good I’d say,” said the 40-year-old. “In terms of their attack play it has got a lot better. I don’t know how much of that is down to Vern, or the other coaches, or maybe just the talent that Scotland now have available.
“If they can field their strongest team there are strike runners all over the field. Stuart Hogg is just starting to tip back to his best at the right time. The worry will be the fact that we saw in the World Cup that England were looking to play a more fast and free game. They are the games Scotland have struggled with in the past, doing better in the arm wrestles. They might fear opening up too much against England.”
As a former second row, Kay is naturally intrigued by the always pivotal forwards battle which will shape Saturday’s game. He admits the English pack’s failure against the Wallabies in particular hurt and has his own theories on why the usually formidable unit misfired when it mattered most. “It was a huge blow to English pride,” he said of that Australia loss which condemned them to an early exit. “But I think the damage was done in that ten-minute spell at the end against Wales. England were then under massive pressure, with Australia less so. Had England seen it out against Wales it would have been a very different game.
“There was a lot of talk in the build-up that there was maybe a chink in the English forward armour and they spent a lot of time answering those questions, insisting there wasn’t and maybe it was a case of protesting too much.
“There is also an element that maybe hasn’t been explored in that the training for the World Cup was all about playing at this high intensity and the players did a lot more running. Maybe some of the front-row guys were hugely fit to run around but maybe not quite as fit to scrummage. Maybe having that huge pre-season then going back to their clubs and settling into their more usual style of play and training might be the perfect blend.”
The Leicester Tigers stalwart, who is now a familiar voice on TV as a pundit and analyst, enjoyed a good record against the Scots in his 62-cap career, only losing once in 2008. When asked to pick out his top Calcutta Cup memories he says with a chuckle: “Probably that loss.
“Actually my first Six Nations game was at Murrayfield. I remember Scott Murray was my opposite number and I’d played quite a bit against him at various clubs and we had a bit of a rivalry. I had a reasonable game, really enjoyed it and I have a framed picture of myself and Martin Johnson with the Calcutta Cup in the Murrayfield changing room. It was my first real taste of Six Nations rugby so it was a dream come true.
“I remember the bagpipes and the fire shooting out of the top of stadium and the generous, shall we say, welcome that the Scottish fans gave us on the drive in to Murryafield. Lots of friendly waving, at least I think that’s what it was. But it’s a great atmosphere and if you’re confident you will thrive on it. That’s the battle Eddie Jones has got. He has to instil that confidence.”
l Ben Kay is part of the Accenture Analysis Team during the RBS Six Nations, providing fans with insight and analysis to #Seebeyond standard match data. Follow @AccentureRugby or visit accenture-rugby.com. Download the Official RBS 6 Nations app.