Tom Youngs: Sowing the seeds of success on England's front line
A farmer's son like England's coach, the converted hooker is looking to cultivate the position as his own after a fruitful autumn
When Stuart Lancaster commented at the conclusion of England's autumn series that he was "too Cumbrian" to get carried away by the record win over New Zealand, it needed no explaining to Tom Youngs, the Leicester hooker who has spent a wondrous month as the only one of four new caps to appear from the start of every autumn international.
"I've had a little chat with Stuart about farming," says Youngs of the background he shares with England's head coach as sons of farmers. "He has memories of the hard graft when he was a youngster, and we are both passionate about the land, the livestock, the open air, all of it. I was saying you either love it or you don't."
Youngs loves it, undoubtedly; agriculture will be his career when rugby is over, and he telephones his dad, Nick, daily to get the news from the family farm in Norfolk, which can be considered as far as Cumbria from whichever unspecified head-turning mysteries of a metropolis that Lancaster was referring to. There are occasional days when no call is necessary: Nick, a former England scrum-half, attends every Leicester home match and most of the away ones, and having been to Twickenham with his wife, Patricia, over the past Saturdays, he will take his more customary seat at Welford Road today to see Tom and brother Ben resume club action against Treviso in the Heineken Cup.
"Any conversation about farming puts a smile on my face," says Tom, whose emergence and mostly untroubled performances for England provided one of the great stories of an unpredictable autumn. "I'm thinking of times standing around with the men, chatting about what bird has just flown past. There's plenty of pigeons about at the moment, eating the rape."
It may be only a few days since England put 38 points on rugby's mightiest beasts, the New Zealand All Blacks – having been bested by Australian Wallabies and South African Springboks in the previous fortnight – but Youngs is "too Norfolk" to do anything other than echo the party line that it will count for nothing if England fail to maintain their standards when they play Scotland in the Six Nations' Championship at the start of February.
"I loved every minute of it," he says. "The Australian match was fairly fast and I don't think we were at the intensity of an international match. Against New Zealand we had to be so quick off the defensive line. We had a gameplan, we knew what we had to do. They scored two quick tries at the start of the second half and it was, 'Jesus, these guys are dangerous'. But we went back to our game and the reality now is we have to stick at that level. Keep up that intensity and that drive."
For the next few weeks that will have to be done in the green, white and red of Leicester, whose opening Heineken Cup results in October were a 23-9 loss in Toulouse and a bonus-point home win over Ospreys. "It's great to be back and straight into a massive match," says Youngs. "We didn't do too much last Monday, but we worked on the line-out on Tuesday – I know all the calls, it's just reminding yourself of them. This run of club games will be very good, most of them only 10 or 15 per cent off an international."
Quite unexpectedly – even though Youngs played in the midweek matches on England's summer tour – he now has a Test spot to play for. "You're never nailed down, and that's where the club becomes so important," he says. "That's how Stuart does it, on club form."
At the outset of England's autumn, the hooker position was a problem. Dylan Hartley, Rob Webber and Joe Gray were injured; Lee Mears had retired from international rugby, Steve Thompson from the game all together. Youngs, who was a wing and then a centre until three years ago, suffered a very public attack of the yips in a Premiership match at Gloucester in his last outing before his England debut against Fiji.
A conversation we had in between those two matches epitomised the 25-year-old's unflappable and dedicated nature. "The first throw was a miss-lift, then I had three not-straights, which wasn't great – at that level, you can't be doing that. It can be fatigue from the previous week. Maybe I was a little tight in my shoulders, I wasn't getting my hands off at the same time. My left hand was coming off early, pushing the ball round with my right hand. But the way I finished made it a good experience. At the end, after 70-whatever minutes, I was hitting them."
Youngs knows he has much to learn; simple stuff like not allowing the opposition to crowd the gap to their liking. Stuff that old hands such as his club coach – and former hooker – Richard Cockerill learnt in their time. "Cockers has been absolutely brilliant," Youngs says. "He looked after me when the press got on to me about the line-out, saying, 'He's learning'. He's always good like that."
Youngs "caught the back end" of Monday's draw for the 2015 World Cup, which grouped England with Australia and Wales, both of whom have won at Twickenham this year: another reason why Lancaster kept things low-key after the All Blacks.
"Yes it was a great win," says Youngs, "but the bigger picture is the World Cup. You can't give it the big fist-pump now. It's a case of reserving that for 2015."
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