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.
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