Tom Youngs to stake claim for Lions start in showdown
Leicester hooker faces rival Hartley in Aviva Premiership decider
Once upon a Lions tour two hookers, Barry Williams and Mark Regan, famously came to blows on the training field. No one died; frankly, it was a relief to every onlooker to know the two men were living up to one of the game's most combustible positions.
This year Tom Youngs of Leicester and Northampton's Dylan Hartley are two of the three Lions contesting the No 2 jersey. They managed to keep things civil at last Monday's kitting-out session – well, a full-on scrap among the suits and the shiny shoes would have been silly – but next Saturday, even before they board the plane for Australia, they have the little matter of their clubs meeting in the final to decide the Aviva Premiership.
"I think it's like any position, when you're fighting for it," Youngs said, pondering over the right words. "You get on but you're still in competition.
"It's easier when you have a rival at a club. When it's international level, or higher with the Lions, it's that bit more difficult. You say hello, you have your chat at dinner about a game… you do everything to help the team, but that's about it.
"Dylan and I get on all right together. But you know on the training field you're going to want to get ahead of each other. And at Twickenham next week we will be smashing into each other, wanting to do what we can do to help our side win the Premiership."
The pair have had the same rivalry with England all season and Youngs, in making a stunning breakthrough after his well-documented switch from centre to hooker four years ago, has had the best of it, starting eight of his country's nine Tests, while Hartley was out of action with a knee injury in the autumn, before sitting on the bench behind his less experienced rival for most of the Six Nations.
There was just time enough in the few hours they and the third Lions hooker – Wales's Richard Hibbard – spent with their fellow tourists at the Lions' London hotel for the head coach, Warren Gatland, to make a speech about casting off their national ties and uniting for the red jersey. Then Youngs and Hartley returned to pumping themselves up for the infinitely more parochial battle of the East Midlands, set for six days' time at Twickenham in the first Premiership final meeting between the clubs, who are 37 miles apart but at either end of the championship-winning scale: Leicester have nine titles to Northampton's none, and have appeared in the past eight finals, winning three.
In fact the sides first met in 1880 when Leicester were just a few weeks old – but Youngs, as in so many respects of his whirlwind rise, is a relative novice. A few minutes here and there in four appearances as a substitute hooker against Northampton to go with a start as centre in what feels like the mists of time in December 2006, before Leicester's South African former head coach Heyneke Meyer suggested his switch of position.
Youngs's first front-row start versus the Saints was in March this year, but he was off before half-time after banging his head on someone's knee and cannot remember much about it. (Not Hartley's knee, in case you were wondering).
"I think Dylan and Hibbard are strong in the tight and pretty good around the field too, though I am a bit quicker," said Youngs. "The hard grounds in Australia might suit me. I guess Warren has picked players to give him a certain balance. All I am thinking about is this final. Your club is who you come back to, you feel like you owe the club the win."
In turn the club coach, Richard Cockerill, has been rewarded for his decision to see the Youngs experiment through, leaving him on the field early in the season at Gloucester when The Shed were braying and Youngs's throw was faltering.
"I'm a bit envious, in a nice way," said Cockerill. "I got capped at 27, having been a hooker since I was a kid, and I had to work my nuts off for that. Tom should take massive credit. He has worked so hard."
For the record, when Williams and Regan had finished fighting in 1997, Keith Wood got the Test spot. And anyway, when it comes to rivalry, how about the Youngs family try-tally challenge? Every Monday, cousin Jake posts an update on Facebook – participants are Tom and his brother Ben (who is topping the table), plus two more fellow Tigers and Lions squad members Tom Croft and Dan Cole, who are going out with two of their female cousins.
Then there are the playing cousins at the Youngs's old club, Holt in Norfolk: Jake, a hooker, his brother Bruce, a scrum-half, and Joe and Freddie in the seconds. And Edward, who plays for West Norfolk, and Monty, who's somewhere Tom cannot remember. "I am actually on minus one, because I got a try disallowed against Scotland, so that's not too clever," said Tom. "Coley's on zero but he's still beating me."
With that kind of incentive, Hartley may not stand a chance.
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