Ben Kay has admitted Leicester have endured a difficult season
And Kay, World Cup winner in 2003 and now on the Tigers board which has launched an inquiry into their disastrous season, reckons the humiliating 43-0 Champions Cup home defeat to Glasgow at the weekend has only underlined the myriad problems afflicting English rugby’s proudest club.
“It’s not easy watching. That was probably the lowest point I can remember in Leicester’s recent history. Glasgow were exceptional, but Leicester didn’t fire a shot,” said Kay.
The Tigers took the first step in their bid for recovery by firing director of rugby Richard Cockerill three weeks ago and promoting Aaron Mauger to introduce a more free-flowing style, but since then they have lost three on the bounce, conceded 99 points while scoring 19, and shipped 12 tries but scoring just one.
“Probably what’s difficult for the fans is they see some changes being made and that result happens and they say, ‘Hang on, you said you got rid of the problem’. But it’s not instantly going to get better just because one person leaves,” said Kay.
Leicester sacked director of rugby Richard Cockerill
"I don’t think anyone said it’s just Richard Cockerill. I don’t think you can say it’s now been proven that it was the wrong decision to get rid of him. You were never going to get a team that hadn’t been playing particularly well playing brilliantly just because one guy leaves.
"We tried to play fast, expansive rugby against one of the most expansive teams in the Champions Cup. There’s an element of the message being lost, or the players not sticking to the game plan when they’re on the field. There’s an element of game management, an element of needing time for that message to shore up in the players’ minds.
"I would never have expected that performance. But I would have been surprised if two weeks after Richard Cockerill had left Leicester would suddenly have been the form team in Europe or in the Premiership.
"You do have to take a balanced view – and we are in the middle of a review and we haven’t said this is what it’s going to look like going forward. We have to give it time to make sure we have all the facts and plan the best route forward."
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Kay, the lineout maestro who spent 11 seasons at Welford Road during which Leicester won seven Premiership titles and one European Cup, is quick to point that while this campaign may be close to collapse, to remember the early professional years as nothing but golden is false.
"There have been bad times before," he said. "Everyone harps back to the era when Johnno [Martin Johnson] was there and I was a part of that team. But we didn’t win every year. in 2003 we finished sixth. In 2004 we finished fifth. That wouldn’t have made the play-offs in current times."
But Kay did admit: "The worrying thing is the manner of some of the defeats.
“Leadership has been lacking in this team, while the game plan that was being played – that perhaps shouldn’t have been played – has taken a big toll on the forwards physically. If you’re relying on your forwards to make the gainline and they’re doing too much carrying then the energy levels aren’t going to be there."
Kay also points to the loss of the midfield brains and brawn of the side, Matt Toomua and Manu Tuilagi, as critical to their lack of intelligence and cutting edge which has seen them tumble out of the Champions Cup and currently languish in fifth place in the Premiership, five points off the play-offs.
Leicester have missed Manu Tuilagi, admits Ben Kay
"Everyone’s spoken about the loss of Manu," said Kay. "That’s a big loss. A lot of the players feel had he not gone off against Saracens they would have closed that game out because they would have had that impact over the gainline.
"But without doubt the biggest loss has been Matt. He is an on-field coach, a leader. Leicester have always been better when they’ve had a very intelligent 12. They were always a better side when they had Anthony Allen directing Manu around than when he wasn’t on the field.
"That is the substantial loss, and I feel for Richard and Aaron that they haven’t had their two prized assets, two of the biggest lumps inside the salary cap, available to them. They have been desperately unlucky because that would have made a significant difference.
"But you’ve got to deal with what you’ve got available, and they haven’t been able to do that."
While Mauger's hopes of staying in the role long term have been holed beneath the water by the Glasgow defeat, he remains in charge for now and will have to deal with more absences through the Six Nations, with flanker Mike Williams, prop Dan Cole and scrum-half Ben Youngs in England's squad.
Kay admits it's not easy watching Leicester this season
And while Kay believes the absence of Youngs will be most keenly felt, there could be a silver lining for his club.
"We’ll miss Dan Cole but tactically there are not a lot changes if he’s not there. So it’s Ben Youngs that tactically we’ll miss," said Kay.
"But he’s the sort of 9 that always looks better on the front foot. When things are going well he’s an instinctive 9, and there’s opportunities to dart. When he’s under pressure to make decisions, that instinctiveness which sets him apart from everyone else in the world disappears because he’s suddenly thinking, ‘I’m a British Lions scrum-half and I need to break’. Usually they just happen because everyone has switched off from him. But if the team’s going backwards, everyone’s watching him. He’s got that pressure on him to lead.
"Yes Leicester will miss Ben enormously and they will want him there, but Sam Harrison is a slightly different sort of 9, more about the speed of the ball away from the breakdown into the 10’s hands, which then gives Freddie Burns and Owen Williams more decision-making time than if Ben has had a look for himself and then given it to them. It would be a bigger loss if Leicester were playing really well."
That, for the moment at least, is not the case, as Kay readily confesses.
“That result against Glasgow is not acceptable to anyone at Leicester," he said. "I don’t think you’ll find any player saying it wasn’t their fault, any coach saying it wasn’t their fault, and the board have to take responsibility as well. This is a bad time in Leicester’s history.
“There’s a lot of things that need to get better and that will take a bit of time. But certainly the club is not writing off the rest of the season.
“It won’t help any Leicester fans but in the grand scheme of things, potentially it’s better that it happens in that sort of game when Leicester are struggling to qualify. Now all the focus turns on the Anglo-Welsh Cup for the next couple of weeks to get things back in order.”
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.