With the new rugby season well underway in the UK, fans have been treated to some incredible early season games with fast running rugby, slick handling and offloads galore. But as the weather takes a turn for the worse, England World Cup winning lock turned expert TV analyst Ben Kay will be relying on his Zerofit baselayers to keep the cold at bay this autumn and winter.
A two-time Heineken Cup champion with Leicester Tigers, Ben was one of the first commentators, TV anchors and analysts who we reached out to last season as someone who would be required to stay outside for many hours in order to complete broadcasting duties – an ideal scenario to test-drive the Zerofit product range, especially the Heatrub Ultimate which is five times warmer than a standard baselayer.
‘Once the cold gets in, it genuinely affects your ability to do the job because you can’t think straight, and your brain stops functioning properly and the pain of wherever you are feeling the cold gets to you. As soon as you are cold, that’s it, you’re never going to get rid of that feeling until you’re back inside. It genuinely is such a big thing amongst everyone who works on BT Sport – the fear of underclubbing with clothing is very real. Genuinely, Zerofit baselayers were a bit of a game changer. I’d always worn compression gear but having that additional thickness in a baselayer makes a dramatic difference, it’s fantastic,’ says Ben, who moved into media work once his playing days at Leicester came to an end in 2010 after more than 11 years with the Tigers. In a stellar career, he also amassed 62 caps for England with two more for the British and Irish Lions.
‘I was certainly very lucky to go straight from playing into the media and I’ve been fortunate to be with BT Sport who have had all of the domestic rights for some time, and also ITV for a number of the internationals and World Cups. ESPN had taken over the media rights just around the same time Leicester had decided not to renew my contract – I was looking at some other clubs, but just by chance found out that ESPN needed a co-commentator, and it all went from there.
‘I’d done a bit of after dinner speaking and hosting of events, but I was very fortunate that all of the production work at ESPN was done by Sunset+Vine, who also do everything for BT Sport. The key with ESPN was that the approach was very, very relaxed – no suits, no ties – and we were told to just talk to the audience as we would a fan in the pub, so it made it very, very easy and you could forget that there were people watching from home.
‘It was that sort of conversational tone, and not trying to be too polished which obviously helped. Still to this day, I hate rehearsing because when I have to do that, I find that I’m thinking about what I’m going to be saying in an hour’s time. We don’t answer many of the questions in rehearsals because when you go live you are trying to remember what you said in the rehearsal, rather than just talking from the heart or the head in the moment. That’s the sort of style I love, being in the moment. I much prefer commentating to the punditry side because with that you’re talking about what might happen and your view on it, whereas the commentary side you’re talking about what’s actually happening in front of you and analysing it in real time, and that’s what floats my boat. If you’re doing both roles, it affects your preparation a little bit because for punditry that’s where you look into how a specific team has been playing and what you’re expecting them to do on the day, but then if you over prepare for co-commentary, I find that you’re trying to force the narrative and conversation of what you know rather than actually commentating on what’s happening in front of the viewers’ eyes,’ he adds.
For rugby fans – new and old – Ben and his pitchside teammates are somewhat of a cosy comfort blanket on a Friday evening and a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, combining expert analysis with a family feel, while explaining the nuances of the game to a kaleidoscope of an audience.
‘We developed a really good team at ESPN, with Nick Mullins and (ex-Leicester and England team-mate) Austin Healey and now we’re all at BT Sport. Nick is the supreme commentator across all sports, and he was very helpful when I started with advice. For example, he would say to me, “you’ll have people watching who are bona fide rugby experts who know as much as you do, but you’ll also have people who think they do but don’t, so imagine you’re in a rugby conversation with (former Leicester, England and Lions captain) Martin Johnson and your Mum and try to give information that keeps both parties involved and engaged in the conversation.” I still use that advice to this day,’ he says.
Throughout his career, Kay was a lock who liked to play and get his hands on the ball, as well as being a master operator at lineout time, dramatically stealing a set-piece ball against All Blacks enforcer Ali Williams in 2002, which set up a famous England victory at Twickenham, and then a year later learning Afrikaans to breach the Springboks lineout call code at the 2003 World Cup – just two of many highlights.
‘The game has changed, but I think the modern game would have suited me as a player maybe even more. I enjoyed the attacking side of it, despite everyone thinking I had rubbish hands because I dropped the ball near the try line in a World Cup final – that was my game, an offloading player and that was what excited me, to be quite attack-minded and I can still hear coaches now shouting at me not to throw 50:50 passes, whereas today players are encouraged to play a bit more, so I think I would have really enjoyed the game. The scrum was more of a factor in the game when I played, but that wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed and some of the tight exchanges, but there were obviously huge benefits to playing back then versus today – the social media element is certainly difficult for the modern player, so there’s pluses and minuses. I don’t have any regrets, but I wish I knew what I know now back then in terms of dealing with form and lack of confidence,’ he adds.
It’s been 18 years since that night in Sydney when Jonny Wilkinson dropped for World Cup glory but for Ben, there were plenty of other career highlights.
‘Everyone expects you to say the best game of your life was the World Cup Final and while that was the culmination of years of hard work, my favourite rugby memory was winning the first Heineken Cup in 2001 with Leicester. The feeling before the game, the nervousness of what it meant to everyone else involved at the club and within the squad – there were guys in there who were nearing the end of their playing days, who had featured in the loss against Brive in the 1997 final, and this might be their last chance. So, the weight of responsibility for those guys was huge, but then to win it in the way we did in the back garden of Stade Français (with a dramatic late try from Leon Lloyd and conversion from Tim Stimpson to give the Tigers a 34-30 victory), and the atmosphere afterwards when we ditched the official post-match function to go and have a few beers with the fans in Paris is just a huge memory for me.
‘My favourite game for England was the World Cup quarter-final against Australia in 2007, when everyone had written us off after we got thrashed by South Africa in the first game of the tournament. You could almost see the England fans trudging into the stadium, with very little expectation and thinking “well, we’ve bought the tickets, we might as well go and just make a good weekend of it” but as the match went on you could feel the atmosphere change as we stayed in the game – without doubt, my favourite ever game for England because it went against all expectations. You could almost see it in the faces of the Australian players, that they’d been thinking about the semi-final and what we were doing to them wasn’t supposed to be happening, and to do it in Marseille in the baking sunshine made it even more special,’ he adds.
For Ben – just like the vast majority of rugby fans – the recent Lions tour to South Africa didn’t quite hit the heights of expectation, but he is adamant the next Tour will be incredible.
‘South Africa is the Lions tour that the Lions was made for and to lose the fans because of the pandemic was such a shame. Some of the quality on the pitch wasn’t great, and some of that is down to the style of rugby South Africa employ, but the Lions Test matches haven’t always been great. It’s made up for by the drama and the tension in the stadium and if you take that atmosphere away it dramatically affects people’s viewing pleasure. Add into the mix all of the other stories and elements that were missing, that normal Lions Tours deliver, the build-up during the week, it all adds to the drama and excitement of the series, and we didn’t have any of that. I think it was better than not having a Tour, but I’ve got no worries about the Lions. People will be so desperate to get out and experience a Lions Tour as it should be, a fantastic occasion,’ he concludes.
INFORMATION: Away from rugby, Ben Kay is a partner in Pablo, a highly successful creative advertising agency. You can check out their work and clients at www.pablolondon.com
Ben works with Melissa Chappell at her I Will Know Someone agency that specialises in the provision of media coaching and advice to professional sports broadcasters and talent. www.iwillknowsomeone.com