Ben Kay believes George Kruis' return to England's lineout could take it to new heights
And the man who called the play that set up Jonny Wilkinson’s World Cup-winning drop-goal in 2003 reckons his successor as England’s lineout mastermind, Steve Borthwick, is just the man to bring the best out of this year’s vintage.
Borthwick, much maligned as England captain between 2008 and 2010 but never for his lineout brains, is now England’s forwards coach and charged by Jones with providing the platform to build another Grand Slam campaign.
And Kay reckons with Kruis having recovered from the broken cheekbone he suffered playing for Saracens against Newcastle on Christmas Eve, the England lineout can reach new heights.
“The set-piece is already good, but they can take it to another level,” said Kay, who won 62 England caps. “Steve is exceptionally good as a forwards coach, because of his level of detail.
George Kruis recovered from a broken cheekbone he suffered on Christmas Eve
“They’re a lot better lineout side with George Kris in there. He gets a bit of stick from the Sarries boys for being Steve’s child [Borthwick used to mentor Kruis at the English and European champions], but they’re better with him in. They’ve got fantastic athleticism.
“Their levels can go up. It’s a psychological thing for the players to aim for. That’s what Eddie Jones is very good at. One of his tricks when he first arrived was telling players why they didn’t make the squad, and some of the reasons he was giving were actually their strengths.
“So he was telling Tom Youngs, ‘You’re not carrying enough, you’re not tackling enough’. Yet that’s what Tom does best. Maybe England were getting a little complacent and Eddie was shifting it along.
“If you focus on the start of it all, the set-piece, then everything follows. It is about those minute details that everyone does, but just doing them 10 per cent better than anyone else.”
Kay’s lineout was certainly capable of that, with Martin Johnson, Richard Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio as his chief receivers. But he stresses it is the entire pack’s responsibility that it runs smoothly, and cites the South Africa lineout of their 2007 World Cup triumph as the one to have neared perfection.
“At lineout time it’s not necessarily all about the leader or the jumper, it’s making sure that everyone’s on the same page, so every single lift is right,” said Kay.
“When South Africa were very dominant with Victor Matfield, Juan Smith and Bakkies Botha, the people that really made the difference were some of the lifters, the props.
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“You felt under so much pressure. Usually you can pick off the weak link in a lineout, see the prop is a little bit far away from the jumper, raise your eyes to the hooker and get the ball in and away before the opposition knew it. Every movement of all their lifters was so crisp.
Ben Kay is part of the Accenture Analysis Team during the RBS 6 Nations
“Borthers will do that for England. Neil Hatley will look to do it for the scrum too.
“You have to back what you’re doing, with your throw and without. It is often deemed the hardest place to throw is the back, but it’s the best ball.
“It always makes me laugh when a team is under pressure and a commentator is saying, ‘Why don’t they just throw it short?’ Well, that just makes the defence think, ‘The hooker is under pressure and wobbling a bit so let’s make him throw long and have a look at him’.”
England go into their opener against France this weekend having not lost for more than a year and eyeing a Tier One record of 18 successive wins that would be sealed with a Grand Slam triumph in Dublin. But Kay believes the chickens must be counted one by one.
“A Grand Slam will be tougher this year,” he said. For England it will depend on other results.
“I don’t think Wales are as strong as they have been though they’ll always be a threat against England in Cardiff. Ireland are a massive threat, so maybe it would be better if it was a Grand Slam decider and there’s as much pressure on them as on England. I would be hugely concerned if England were going for a Grand Slam and the world record and Ireland had lost a game. With Scotland, and the way Glasgow have gone, I’m glad we’re playing them at Twickenham.
“It will be tough for anyone to do a Grand Slam because the quality is right up there. It’s the hardest year to pick your Lions squad. You just can’t nail it down. You don’t get that unless there’s quality in every position.”
Ben Kay is part of the Accenture Analysis Team during the RBS 6 Nations, providing fans with insight and analysis to #Seebeyond standard match data. Follow @AccentureRugby or visit accenture-rugby.