Ben Youngs close to clinching Lions spot by winning duel with Morgan Parra

Out in the cold a year ago, scrum-half has roared back to be a key part of England's rebuilt side

Twelve months ago, Ben Youngs was marginally further away from a place in the British and Irish Lions Test team than the Brisbane waterfront is from the Norfolk Broads. Today, he is three decent performances away from boarding the Australia-bound plane as a narrow favourite for the scrum-half berth against the Wallabies in the main event of the rugby year, and the fact that he transformed his personal fortunes in the unpromising surroundings of Dublin only adds to the extraordinariness of it all. It was back in the spring of 2011 that the Leicester half-back confessed to "playing like an idiot" against the green-shirted hordes at Lansdowne Road.

He had not seen the last of his troubles. The World Cup shambles was every bit as disastrous for him as it was for everyone else involved, and in the early months of Stuart Lancaster's stewardship of red-rose affairs, things went from bad to worse: far from playing himself into the new coach's affections, he played himself out of the starting line-up.

Then the injuries kicked in – Youngs failed to reach the end of the tough five-match tour of South Africa last summer – and it was not until the mid-point of the pre-Christmas international series at Twickenham that he reclaimed his place from Danny Care of Harlequins.

But as Care vividly demonstrated while on Premiership duty against Youngs' very own clubmates at the weekend – his solo try at The Stoop was full of sublime trickery, as the terminally discombobulated Mathew Tait will readily acknowledge – the contest still has some way to run.

Yet Youngs, not wholly persuasive in the Calcutta Cup victory over Scotland but well-night faultless on "payback day" in the Irish capital, is reasserting some of his authority.

When Graham Rowntree, the England coach who will be part of the Lions back-room team in Australia, indicated that the list of potential tourists up for discussion by Warren Gatland and the rest of the British Isles hierarchy next week would contain a significantly greater number of red-rose players than it did a few short weeks ago, Youngs, the 23-year-old farmer's boy from Cawston, a few miles north of Norwich, was patently among those in his thoughts.

Asked to identify the single biggest improvement in England's rugby since the halfway stage of last year's Six Nations programme, Rowntree unhesitatingly highlighted game management. As this is one of Youngs' primary duties, it is safe to assume he is pressing most of the right buttons, if not all of them. Certainly, his risk-versus-reward calculations against Ireland were spot on. If he can show similar judgement against France at Twickenham this weekend, his claim to Lionhood will be close to indisputable.

Not that it will be entirely straightforward. Les Bleus may be in the middle of a bad trot, but they will surely travel with an extremely useful pack of forwards and a master tactician at their heels. As it is perfectly possible to argue that Morgan Parra of Clermont Auvergne is the best No 9 in the sport, the idea that he is the second-best No 9 in France seems just a little weird. Unless something really strange happens, he is about to be removed from the bench and relocated in his rightful place.

"One player I studied a lot was Dimitri Yachvili," Youngs said, referring to the supreme strategist from Biarritz who guided France past both England and Wales and into the World Cup final in 2011. "What struck me was the way he determined everything that happened on the field. In France, it has traditionally been the No 9s who run the show. Yachvili was definitely in that tradition.

"In English rugby, the main decision-making role has always been performed by the outside-half rather than the scrum-half. But I think the game has moved on: there is more of a sharing of the load now. And just as Yachvili used to do, I feel I can play it as I see it and back myself to do something different if it's on. It's one of the things Mike Catt [the England attacking skills coach] has brought in – the licence to scan the field, see what possibilities there are and execute your ideas. The French have that unpredictability about them and it's somewhere we want to get to ourselves, although that kind of thing takes time."

Assuming the France coach Philippe Saint-André sees sense and does what Basil Fawlty would have called the "bleeding obvious", the match-up between Youngs, by his own admission prone to the occasional temperamental meltdown, and the unnervingly cool Parra will be a compelling game within a game. If the Englishman passes the test, Care could score brilliant individual tries every weekend from now until high summer and still not get a look-in. It's a cruel world.

No 9 dreamers: Rivals for Lions tour

Danny Care The current England back-up has the pace and footwork to unravel defences but needs game time to stake a claim.

Greig Laidlaw Smart, inventive, versatile – a priceless asset on Lions tours – and a goal-kicker to boot. The Scot is a strong contender.

Conor Murray One of the taller breed, the Irishman asks questions around the edges. But is he a poor man's Mike Phillips?

Mike Phillips Still keeping the more classically equipped Lloyd Williams on the Wales bench, the incumbent is the most physical of half-backs.

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'