- Open, honest England scrum half speaks at length with ERtv
- Next opponents Ireland have played a crucial role in his 44-Test career
Ben Youngs, the epitome of energy, buoyancy and positivity in the current England set up, is in reflective mood when considering the impact games against Ireland have had during his 44-Test, five-year international career.
The Leicester Tigers scrum half has started three Test matches against England’s next RBS 6 Nations opponents, a roller coaster hat-trick of emotionally challenging contests which encapsulate his ups and at the highest level.
Starting with a trip to the new Aviva Stadium in 2011, the then 20 year-old was part of a Grand Slam-chasing side under Martin Johnson, which collapsed to a 24-8 defeat in front of a raucous crowd.
Youngs was emblematic of that implosion, being sin-binned in the 35th minute for preventing a quick Ireland lineout and not returning to the field after the 10-minute period with an angry Johnson choosing to send on Danny Care instead.
“At the time I went in very naïve, at that age you just think it’s going to happen,” remembers the British and Irish Lion. “Why wouldn’t it? We’d won the last four, one more to go.
“It was really tough to be subbed in the first half, especially at 20, everything is new and you don’t really know how to deal with it. The emotions after that were hard.”
Fast forward a year and Stuart Lancaster is taking charge of his first Championship as interim head coach and Youngs starts the first two wins against Scotland and Italy before “losing the nine shirt” to Lee Dickson.
Ireland came to Twickenham in the final round and were obliterated up front by a pumped-up England pack, laying the foundations for Youngs to come off the bench and score a superbly alert, speedily finished try late on in the 30-9 victory.
Youngs had been subject to criticism in the media for this performances – leaving Twitter at one point too – and the try prompted a mammoth outpouring of emotion from the popular team man as he was engulfed by his fellow players.
“That was another rollercoaster Six Nations for me,” he explains. “Everyone wants to play and start and is never satisfied to see the other guy run out. There was a lot of frustration, sometimes you’re written off as a player and then when you have those moments when you can think, 'yep, you can be quiet now'.
“But those bad experiences shape you. They are important and, as horrible as it was, I think players have to go through it. Players will fail all the time or lose form and you hear people talking about why a certain player isn’t there or what’s happened to him as it seems like he’s fallen off the face of the earth. You have to learn all that when you are young to make you a better player.”
Should all good stories have a happy ending? This one does for Youngs, who started England’s last visit to Dublin in 2013 and emerged from an 80-minute shift with a gritty 12-6 win in driving rain. An image from the final whistle captures Youngs’ “pure elation” and remains his Twitter header image, a measure of what slaying the demons from two years before means to him.
“After losing that Ireland game, getting sin-binned and how it unfolded, as a player you have certain games that stick in your mind,” he smiles. “It’s a good photo of me and Tommy Waldrom too, an old club mate of mine. It’s nice.”
Youngs is currently the first choice scrum half for Lancaster, starting the last four Test match wins over Samoa, Australia, Wales and Italy. After captaining Leicester Tigers this season and becoming first-time father to son Boris, he feels there is a marked maturity off the field which has translated to his play on it.
The try scorer in the 47-17 win over Italy is satisfied with his form and position in the pecking order, but is far from complacent. Having started 30 of his 44 England appearances, Youngs was out of the match-day 23 for last season’s Six Nations and went through a period of introspection to rediscover his love of the sport.
Admitting that his father Nick, a former England scrum half, and brother Tom, a Leicester, England and Lions hooker, were important figures during another tough time, Youngs continues: “I’ve learnt a lot and absorbed a lot.
“Missing out on the Six Nations last season was tough but at the same time it gave me an opportunity to reflect on how I got there in the first place and where I wanted to go next as a player.
“It hurt so much but it gives you that motivation and that little bit of spark that you need. It helped me kick on as a player and I think the captaincy at Leicester has definitely helped me in terms of maturity and leadership on the field.”
The dynamic between players competing for the same position is always interesting, Youngs having interchanged with Care throughout his England career and more recently having Saracens’ Richard Wigglesworth as his back up.
Youngs and Care are rugby confidants and close friends – training in tandem and engaging in regular drop goal competitions – and he dismisses the misconception that rivalries that make the team better cannot exist without animosity.
“Do you know what, you think it would be hard but it’s actually really easy. The respect we have for each other is huge. When you get the respect there, both ways, it makes it easy to get on. You are happy for each other.
“And with Wiggy as well, we’re aware that the better we train, the more the tussle for the shirt is, you’re going to see a spike in performance and that’s what we want. If there was no one close to you in terms of Test rugby, are you going to perform as well as you possibly can? Probably not.”
And a final word on next Sunday’s titanic clash with Ireland in Dublin, when the two teams put their 100 per cent records on the line.
“It’s probably one of the biggest games I’ve ever played in, that’s how I’m preparing for it,” Youngs says without a hint of undue hyperbole. With his history in the city, sincere attitude and the elegance of his recent rugby, you get the sense he really means it.