Exclusive: Rugby FanCast Chats to Ben Kay
I’ve never liked London. It’s just too busy and too intimidating for the likes of us simple country-folk. I was speeding towards the Smoke in the 10.46 Gloucester to Paddington, and I wasn’t looking forward to the experience. I was feeling extremely stressed: I had an appointment with some publishing jonnie and as far as I was concerned, I’d do what I had to do with him and hotfoot it back soonest, to the safety of the shire. Job done; stress over.
Well, that was the plan and you’ll not be surprised to hear that an email from my Rugby Fancast editor with a simple message: ‘You’re booked in to do a telephone interview with Ben Kay at 2pm’, just added to my stress. ‘He was just about to throw himself off the BT Tower, evidently, and he’d agreed to give an interview.’
No way, I thought. Ignoring the obvious question as to why any sane man – even a second row forward – would want to throw himself off a six hundred and twenty foot edifice, I started to reply that I was far too busy (and stressed – don’t forget the stress) for that sort of malarkey and I had other fish to fry, thank you very much.
‘You lazy git,’ my wife said, when I explained the situation to her. ‘Get off your fat behind and interview the guy – he’s a World Cup winner, for crying out loud.’ Not one to ignore a wife (who is?), I started thinking: Aha, I started thinking, I would have the opportunity to ask Ben Kay that question – you know, the question every rugby fan wants to ask him. Not only that, he used to be a Leicester player and, as is obvious to every Gloucester supporter, Leicester are always cheating, and this was my chance to hold one of those cheats to account.
I started preparing my questions. I’d lull him into a false sense of security and butter him up a bit with some easy stuff (What’s your favourite colour? What’s your star sign? That sort of thing) and just when he was relaxed and taking me for a pushover, I’d hit him with the tough Jeremy Paxman-style jaw dropper.
Two hours later I was sitting in a noisy bar in Covent Garden. My phone rang and it was some chappie from BT Sport: ‘Hold on a minute, Ed, and I’ll patch you through to Ben.’
Butter-him-up questions first, Ed, butter-him-up questions first.
What the blooming hell are you jumping off the BT Tower for? Are you mad?
He told me he was abseiling down the tower for Sport Relief (The Royal Marines Charitable Trust Fund to be precise and the link to his giving page is here: https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/benkay1). It was a bit of a relief to hear he’d be attached to ropes and I elected not to tell him the story of my niece who jumped of a cliff backwards thinking all was super dooper and when she realised it wasn’t, it was about two seconds and twenty feet too late.
Anyway, last time I visited his fundraising page he was short of his £5000 target by £4990 so I thought I’d put a fiver in the fund and I encourage you to do the same.
He told me that, except for a bit of a practice run the weekend before (I think he meant practice jump but I’m not certain about that), he didn’t really know one end of an abseil rope from another but he’d discovered that the thrilling thing about abseiling is the realisation that you don’t have to cling to the rope for dear life and you can just lean back and think of England and let the rope take the strain. I wasn’t jealous in any way, but it was a great cause and I wished him all the very best of luck.
So far so good. Another butter-him-up question, I think.
Do you think you might end up coaching? Down here at Gloucester, we’re knee deep in ex-player coaches and I wouldn’t recommend it.
Not for the next three and a half seasons, at least, he explained. He has a contract with BT Sport which had three and half seasons to run but after that, never say never.
I asked him how he viewed the professional era, particularly as he had played in it for eleven years and had loyally stuck with the one club.
Good and bad, he reckoned, but the good outweighed the bad. I suspect he rued the hard-nosed approach to the game that is dominated by contractual obligations, money and the need to win; there had certainly been no sentimentality when the new kids on the block – Deacon and co – swept him aside at the end of his career. But he emphasised that professionalism enhances the playing experience and organisations such as the Rugby Players Association gives the players a voice. On the whole, professionalism was good for rugby.
I explained to Ben that I was a Gloucester fan and asked if he enjoyed the Kingsholm experience.
It was his favourite ground to visit, evidently. Best place in the world, apart from, unsurprisingly, Welford Road. He loved the banter and the atmosphere and couldn’t get enough of it. It made me wonder if we Gloucester supporters aren’t getting it all wrong: teams love coming to play rugby at Kingsholm? That’s never right, surely. Evidently, when we start singing, ‘Same old Gloucester, always cheating’ it just stiffens the sinews and makes them cheat that little bit harder.
Time, I thought, to stop pulling my punches.
Talking of cheats, crooks and Neil Back, I smirked (a wasted gesture – it being the phone and all), do you still see any of your old mates?
I got the impression that it was not as often as he’d like. Everyone leads such busy lives these days that a curry at Christmas was probably as much as they can get up to.
And what about Martin Johnson? Has he always been grumpy or was it just when he became the England coach?
Well, I got short shrift with that one: Martin Johnson, he informed me, has one of the best sense of humours around – it’s just that his unfortunate mono eyebrow and his furrowed forehead gives the impression of grumpiness. He’s never been a great fan of the media and he certainly doesn’t suffer fools. The dwarf-chucking problems he had in New Zealand in 2011 with the World Cup squad were more to do with the media spotlight being on a certain Gloucester player with Royal connections than an absence of team discipline or any unusual rugby-player-on-tour behaviour.
Well, after that suggestion that the collapse of the rugby establishment in the Johnson era was all Gloucester’s fault, I decided it was really time to take my gloves off – it was time for that question.
What is it like being responsible for the most famous knock-on in rugby history?
This was obviously a question he’d been asked a million times and he wasn’t phased. With consummate professionalism he told me that every one makes mistakes (it’s true – I made one once) and all you can do is put it behind you and get on with life. And anyway, such was the confidence of the 03 World Cup Squad, they all felt the result was never in doubt. It was always in the bag, he said.
BT Sport’s Ben Kay is among a host of volunteers who will abseil down from the 29th floor of BT Tower on Monday 10 March. He is raising money for Sport Relief and the Royal Marines Charitable Trust Fund via BT’s MyDonate, the online fundraising site. Ben was recruited for the abseil by Premiership Rugby. To sponsor an abseiler visit www.bt.com/bttowerabseil”.