Thursday 22 March 2018

Flood warning as England stand on a precipice while Kay eyes an avalanche

England Head Coach Eddie Jones. Photo: PA
England Head Coach Eddie Jones. Photo: PA
David Kelly

David Kelly

Whatever those guys at Accenture Rugby are paying Ben Kay, it might not be enough. Before a ball was kicked in this Championship, he eyed a Murrayfield mishap for Ireland, the consequences of which would leave the wounded victims, he feared, spoiling to upset an English side chasing another Grand Slam.

Which is why, oddly, he half-hoped that Eddie Jones' side might lose before now; as it stands, even with the title bagged, a world record and back-to-back Slams are on the line.


Perhaps too much pressure for a side whose leadership under stress is, perhaps, still questionable.

"I personally am very worried for England going in as favourites," says the two-time World Cup finalist who faced Ireland five times (W3, L2) during his eight-year, 64-cap career, including their majestic 2003 triumph here.

"There is a lot more on the line and they could be walking into the sort of ambush we have seen happen before in Dublin."

Kay's erstwhile Tigers and England team-mate, Toby Flood, is now in Toulouse; distance affords him unfettered perspective which, perhaps, is why his favourite Six Nations memory is a Dublin defeat.

Croke Park 2007. No words needed and all that.

Ten years on, Ireland seek to recapture that day's coiled-up rebel spirit; England arrive with the bristling intent; Ireland must find a way to utterly undermine that sense of justified superiority.

"Let's not kid ourselves that England won't be told all week what is in their grasp now," says Flood, a 60-cap, seven-year star playmaker, who experienced precisely-sliced despair and delirium in his four games against the Irish.

"They will hear it said to them by supporters getting on and off the bus. Then the fanfare, the history of this fixture, it's tough.

"But listen, if you wanted to take a snapshot and be in one camp, it would be the 100 per cent camp, 18 wins, going for the Grand Slam, rather than the side with a 50 per cent record in that time.

"But the issue is managing the pressure, it is cranked up, they're on a precipice. England are favourites and they have that All Black aura about them. But they have shown chinks in their armour before and there is always the possibility the party could be spoiled."

Neither are Leicester natives but both men helped author European and domestic glory for Tigers; they are intimately acquainted with a city's sporting fabric; they have watched agape at an astonishing two years in Leicester City's history.

Flood is close friends with Jeremy Snape, who played cricket for county and country, but is now a sports psychologist, working closely with Eddie Jones and his side.

Curiously, we only ever hear about sports psychology when teams are losing; nonetheless, Flood sees a key influence. Under Jones, there may be a lot more 'bs' being spoken; what matters is on the field, where mental bullishness combines with bulldozing physicality.

"Jeremy is good on things like isolated pressure, having been a bowler, so he's great for goal-kickers in particular.

"They have done a lot of crucial work on self-awareness. Now they have that desire to win every single game.

"Ireland, in contrast, are in limbo between believing they're good enough and the confidence that they know it's coming. It's a snowball effect, suddenly it can become an avalanche."

And so the white shirts come to bury Irish hopes; two years ago, they were ridiculed in their own World Cup but they have undergone a stirring evolution; Ireland, despite notable one-off scalps, have regressed, albeit remain the fourth best team in the world.

"Everyone thinks about the World Cup as England being rubbish," says Kay. "They weren't rubbish players, Stuart Lancaster did a lot of good with them.

"Ten bad minutes puts them out. They're a young team. Eddie has come in and given them belief.

"Lancaster was the operations guy, laying foundations. Jones is the brand guy, firing belief. He said they'd be 30 per cent fitter in six weeks. There's no way that can be true, but he wins games and suddenly the fans and media think it is.

"It's snowballing belief. That's why Australia bat above their weight in so many sports.

"We struggle with that, as much as the Irish might disagree! We find reasons for to lose, not to win.

"All great teams need arrogance. The All Blacks are arrogant. They expect to win, they can play poorly and still get over the line."

Ireland are the opposite; hell, even when they are getting over the line, they still can't score. They won't refuse penalties today and will unleash a different plan for their back-rowers. Ireland need something to change because the certainty that they relied only a few months ago has deserted them.

"It's psychological," agrees Flood. "They had a great autumn then suffered a bit of a hangover after the second loss to All Blacks.

"Going to Scotland as odds-on favourites and then Scotland produce their best performance of the tournament is unsettling to happen in your first game. You're always chasing after that.

"Confidence is huge, if you score early, your continuity is good and things come off. Pressure builds on opposition, and you get more space.

"But if they don't come off, you worry about the next one, you're forcing the game, there is less time and space, the errors in attack they become more crucial than they need to be. Now, the pressure is on you."

England's threats are manifold; Kay espies a better back-row balance in English white.

"If you have three guys all doing the same thing, that is a difficulty. You need other players in the pack to make up for some of the things you lose out on, either tackling or having a dog over the ball.

"That is somewhere England are, Haskell is a carrier and tackler, Itoje and Mako Vunipola are tasked at turnover work, Dan Coles is good there.

"The forward needs balance and if you have three big carriers, they need other players to pick up the workload if they cannot.

"And, whatever your lineout strategy, you don't want to be wasting energy if you're not getting anywhere with it and you can be sure there'll be no backs in the maul."

Flood sees a wider threat.

"You can cause havoc on the outside getting to 12 and 13 from a lineout, it's a rugby league ploy in many respects, it is really hurting teams.

"Farrell squared up for Joseph to put Watson through, Scotland's 12 bites on Farrell and he is completely out of the game. They are pinpointing players and putting them under extreme pressure."

The respective defence coaches, Andy Farrell and Paul Gustard, are good friends and one-time colleagues, not to mention a certain familial link.

"Ireland's defence is run by the father so they will know what is going to happen! Both defence coaches are Saracens so they will be sitting with their attack coaches and giving them their own weaknesses. That will be an interesting chat!"

Ben Kay is on the Accenture Analysis Team, helping fans to #Seebeyond standard match data. Go to or


Irish Independent

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