Keep calm and stand by Lancaster is World Cup winner Kay’s call

England's Ben Kay tackles South Africa's Victor Matfield during the IRB Rugby World Cup Final match at Stade de France, Saint Denis, France.
England's Ben Kay tackles South Africa's Victor Matfield during the IRB Rugby World Cup Final match at Stade de France, Saint Denis, France.
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For all the good Stuart Lancaster has done in his time as national head coach, his sudden emergence from nowhere to the highest office in English rugby was always going to rankle with some.

No matter the cultural face-lift he gave the England team, the rise in the rankings he has overseen and the pride he has restored in the shirt, the knives were always going to be sharpened quickly at the first sign of trouble.

Five defeats in a row leading up to last week’s win over Samoa – regardless of the strength of the opposition and the narrow margins in four of those five games – has spelt trouble for Lancaster.

The critics have begun rounding on this low-key appointment from a small corner of the national media and some sections of the old internationals’ brigade.

But Lancaster still has plenty of allies who are keeping this recent run in perspective.

One such supporter is Ben Kay, a BT Sport rugby pundit and 2003 World Cup winner.

Stand by your man is Kay’s mantra; whether that be the head coach or his suddenly under-fire former fly-half, Owen Farrell, who has also had the metaphoric knife plunged between his shoulder blades.

“It’s important to stick with Stuart and his coaching team,” said Kay.

“You look at Clive Woodward three years into his tenure, there were papers championing the fact that he should be sacked.

“Same with Graham Henry in New Zealand after 2007 when critics were saying he should go. Then he won it in 2011.

“The best thing that can happen as an international side, because you’re not together all the time and you have limited windows to work in, is that you have stability over a long period and the RFU have done that with the offer of a six-year deal.

“England have certainly made huge strides under Stuart Lancaster and his coaching team.

“A lot of that has been down to developing the culture of the squad, and they’re reaping benefits from that.

“He’s also blooded so much young talent. England’s average age is 23 compared to New Zealand’s which is 31.

“England had that honeymoon period of having more wins than people thought they would at the start, so now you have people expecting more of them.

“Some of those having a pop at England over how they’ve played over the last couple of weeks are the same people that thought they’d get thrashed in all the games down in New Zealand, and they didn’t.

“This team will be learning a huge amount about the pressures when things don’t go quite so well, and that’s when we’ll find out the most about them.

“It’s been ‘aren’t England great’ for the last 18 months, and now everyone’s questioning them and they’ll learn a lot from that.”

A lot of the doubts surrounding England are pre-emptive, given they are all raised with next year’s World Cup in mind.

The general gist is that if we can not beat South Africa and New Zealand now, how can we expect to beat them when it matters most, potentially in a World Cup final?

But Kay does not subscribe to such knee-jerk thinking.

“Although it’s not been clicking that well in the backline and the centres, I don’t think England will have lost too much in terms of psychological advantages,” he said.

“If you can stay within a score of a team – as England have – then it shows that actually if certain things go differently in a game you could end up winning it.

“England will be happier to peak in just under a year’s time, than having peaked now.

“It’s not ideal, but I’m the positive type and I’m not overly concerned, but just for the good of the camp and getting the media off their back a little bit, they need to have a good performance today and come out on top.”

The Australia that arrive at Twickenham have been similarly chastened by a difficult November in which they have lost to France and Ireland.

But Kay, who relished a good tussle with the Wallabies in an eight-year, 62-cap international career, believes they should not be under-estimated.

“In places, Australia still look good,” said the 38-year-old. “The backline is hugely potent. They play at a high tempo; it’s high risk, high reward, and they’ve come unstuck a couple of times. The worst thing that could have happened for England was the Wallabies losing to Ireland and arriving at Twickenham needing a win.”

While Kay agrees with Lancaster that Ford should be the man dictating play from fly-half, he also feels people are too quick to consign Farrell’s career to the history books.

“People had reservations with Owen Farrell in terms of his attacking play, just as people have got reservations about whether Ford is big enough to be defensive,” said Kay.

“Charlie Hodgson suffered with that throughout his career. He was a great club player, but internationally he struggled defensively. That will be the big issue for Ford but he is a player who could spark what has been a stuttering England backline.

“And Farrell is a born winner. He’ll come back stronger and it will be a great battle between the two. Every team would want a Farrell to step in if required.”

‘Ben Kay is a BT Sport ambassador backing a campaign by BT Sport’s The Supporters Club inviting people to pledge their time this Christmas and beyond to charities and sports clubs. People can try something new by pledging their extra time to sports volunteering in their local area via www.btsport.com/myextratime.’