Tom Youngs: Farmer's boy more than ready to plough a new furrow
Ex-centre says he is comfortable to face Fiji at Twickenham in his new position as hooker
The career switch from centre to hooker is an unusual one, bordering on the unique – the union equivalent of Usain Bolt moving up to the marathon, or Rod Stewart singing Parsifal at Covent Garden. When Tom Youngs wins his first cap for England against the touring Fijians in front of 80,000 Twickenhamites tomorrow, he will turn rugby orthodoxy on its head. Even now, he has made only nine full front-row appearances for Leicester, the club who talked him into this madness.
"I don't know what I've done or how I've gone about it," the 25-year-old debutant said cheerfully after Stuart Lancaster, the red-rose head coach, had confirmed him in the starting line-up. "I remember playing my first full 80 minutes at hooker, for Nottingham against Leicester in a pre-season game, and my dad phoning me afterwards to ask where I was. I said: 'I'm sitting on a wall outside the clubhouse and I can't move.' The Leicester front row that day was Marcos Ayerza, George Chuter and Martin Castrogiovanni, all of them internationals. I was on painkillers for a week."
Youngs has broken the mould in all sorts of ways, including family-wise: his father Nick played scrum-half for England in the 1980s; his brother Ben does likewise now and will be on the bench tomorrow. But even though he first broke into the Leicester side as a midfielder of the no-nonsense, route-one variety, the idea that he might one day materialise at the sharp end was always there in the background.
"Peter Winterbottom [a marvellous open-side flanker for both England and the Lions] is a close family friend and I remember him telling me I should play hooker," Youngs said. "I was probably 15 or 16 at the time. I think my dad mentioned it as well. It made sense.
"I was a hard-running centre who enjoyed tackling and knew how to pick a decent line, but I couldn't kick for toffee. If I'm honest, I didn't have the core skills to really make the grade in midfield. I'm glad I made the switch, although I wouldn't say it's been easy."
It was the South African strategist Heyneke Meyer who crystallised things during a brief tenure as Leicester's head coach. "Heyneke told me I should seriously consider making the move," Youngs recalled, "so I spoke to my dad about it and he said: 'It's your career, your life. Go ahead and do it if you want to give it a shot.'
"I went to Nottingham on a dual registration with Leicester and started learning the trade. It was a matter of setting small targets and taking small steps. I had my head shoved up my arse on more than one occasion, but I was always able to go back to Leicester and talk things through with the top players there. I couldn't have wished for a better way of doing it."
Far from the tallest of England hookers – by comparison with his World Cup-winning predecessor Steve Thompson, he is virtually a midget at 5ft 9in – there is power to spare in the squat, compact Youngs frame. Built along the lines of the Bath forward Lee Mears, another recent claimant to the No 2 shirt who was good enough to start a Lions Test against the Springboks in 2009, he generates significant levels of "oomph" at close quarters. The fact that he comes from a farming background is also relevant. Whatever physical power his rivals might acquire in the gym, it pales into insignificance when set against the natural strength developed by those who get their hands dirty working on the land.
No one in the England camp believes for a second that the newcomer is the "finished article", to use the modern jargon, and those who have watched him struggle to find his line-out jumpers in recent Premiership and Heineken Cup matches would wholeheartedly agree. But Youngs is entirely unfazed by his trials and tribulations in this rather important department.
"There were one or two difficult moments in the game against Gloucester at Kingsholm just recently, but I think I learnt my lesson and learnt it quickly," he argued. "Certainly, things went better for me after half-time. Also, my percentages suggest I'm not too far off – not that I'm a great one for looking at percentages. And then there's the point that all hookers like to make: that if a line-out goes wrong, it's not necessarily down to the thrower."
Happily for Joe Marler and Dan Cole, the two men who will spend tomorrow afternoon in immediate earshot, Youngs is not the most vocal of hookers: more of a Graham Dawe than a Brian Moore or a Mark Regan. "The modern game is too fast-flowing for long conversation," he explained. There speaks the son of a farmer: a strong, silent type with the emphasis on the first of those virtues.
Family affairs: Other England connections
Delon and Steffon Armitage
The last siblings to feature together in an England Test, back in February 2009. The partnership was short-lived as both fell out of favour due to injury or form. They both now play in France.
Rory and Tony Underwood
The pair became the first brothers to feature in over 60 years when they helped Jack Rowell's team to the 1995 Grand Slam. The duo enjoyed great success together on the wings.
Will and Dick Greenwood
Centre Will featured for England for eight years, including helping the country win the 2003 World Cup. His father, Dick, a flanker, won just five caps in the 1960s but also later coached the side.
Harold and Arthur Wheatley
Played together for England in the late 1930s.
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