Ben Youngs interview: England scrum-half recovers his old appetite and looks ahead to England vs Italy in the Six Nations

The England scrum-half lost his edge after the last Lions tour but tells Chris Hewett a spell on the sidelines rekindled his love of the game and now he has a half-back link-up with George Ford to enjoy

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The Independent Online

Rugby players of international quality lose form for different reasons. The celebrity outside-half Danny Cipriani’s performance levels went into meltdown partly as a consequence of orthopaedic trauma – not his fault – and partly through his own behavioural shortcomings, for which he could not in all conscience blame anyone else. Graham Rowntree, now the England forwards coach, lost his love for the game one depressing day in 1997 and only rediscovered it on the notorious red-rose “tour of hell” the following year, which tells you something about the weirdness of the front-row mentality.

Ben Youngs? His form disappeared off the edge of a cliff because he got himself selected for the Lions tour of Australia two years ago and did enough to land a Test start against the Wallabies in Melbourne, ahead of a scrum-half as highly regarded as Conor Murray of Ireland. Which seems a strange explanation, given that, as a general rule, the achievement of a lifetime’s ambition makes a man feel good about himself.

“Afterwards, my motivation just wasn’t the same,” Youngs explains this week as the conversation switches from the influential hand he had played in England’s excellent victory over Wales in the opening round of Six Nations matches to a darker moment during last year’s tournament, when he could not even claim a spot on the bench.

“I think it was the emotional comedown from being involved in something as intense as a Lions tour. When I returned to Leicester, I had only a short pre-season and then found myself playing in a warm-up match in front of two men and a dog, being shouted at by Richard Cockerill [the Midlanders’ head coach].

“I wasn’t alone in feeling the effects of that tour. Of the Leicester boys, Dan Cole and Tom Croft were soon out with injuries; so was Manu Tuilagi. Just about the only ones who stayed fit were me and my brother [Tom Youngs, the England hooker], but we suffered through loss of form.

“And scrum-half being such a public position, where you have more touches of the ball than anyone else, if you mess up it’s going to be highlighted. So there I was, out of the side, watching Danny Care play really well and Lee Dickson making his impacts off the bench.

“It was probably the best thing that could have  happened to me, although it didn’t seem that way at the time. You want to be in the team room, not watching the game on the telly, and I found it hard to take when Saturday wasn’t the best day of the week any more. But all those people saying I had a point to prove were wrong, because in reality the pressure was off. I had the time to find my feet again, to rediscover the enjoyment in a game of rugby.”

 

Last weekend, amid the frenzy of Cardiff, no England player – not even James Haskell, who had such a whale of a time in the back row, or Jonathan Joseph, for whom things could hardly have gone better in midfield – played with more zip and zest than Youngs, who had reclaimed his place in the national side midway through the  pre-Christmas series against the cream of the southern hemisphere and was clearly the number one No 9 going into Six Nations camp.

And if his individual display, full of damaging little surges from ruck and maul, brought to mind the best of his rugby in the run-up to the last World Cup, his half-back understanding with the new No 10 George Ford was even more  impressive.

“We’ve worked hard on building our relationship, George and Billy Vunipola [the No 8] and myself,” Youngs says. “If you can get that link right, you can identify the things you want to do and back it up on the field.

“I think I give people better information than I once did – in the past I came out with a lot of white noise – and taking on the captaincy at Leicester has helped me in that area.

“And then there’s George, who offers that sense of direction. He’s such a mature player, it’s hard to think he’s still only 21; you assume he’s played far more Tests than he has. I saw him come through the academy at Leicester and remember being glad that he was a No 10 rather than a scrum-half, because guys like him are very rare in this game. I don’t think I’ll see another one like him between now and the time I retire.”

Youngs is excited by Ford’s can-do mentality – “his mindset is ‘let’s have a go’, and I like that about him” – but he also credits the youngster with a highly developed sense of restraint. It seems to be  rubbing off.

Youngs says his own attacking instincts, so strikingly evident when he threw a dummy behind his goal-line before freeing the wing Chris Ashton on that famous length-of-Twickenham glory gallop against the Wallabies in 2010, are still a part of his make-up as a running scrum-half, but he has also learnt the value of discretion.

“You can’t just go out there thinking you’ll play it as you see it,” he says. “That won’t cut it at Test level. You have to work on every element of your game, take it all with you on to the field and show some patience.

“I think we were patient as a team in Cardiff. When we went 10-0 down early on, we could have said, ‘Oh well, let’s chuck the ball around and see what happens.’ What we actually did was set about solving our problems on the field and winning in a manner that should give us great belief.

“As a team, we hadn’t been able to do that in the past. Instead of solving things on the go, we’d only solve them when we were reviewing the match. The Wales game really ticked a box for us, I think.

“Not that you want to go out there in a big game and give your opponents a start like that. There was a point in Cardiff when we looked at each other and said, ‘What’s happening? We’ve only spent the last 10 days talking about not doing this.”

So it is that Youngs goes into this afternoon’s game against Italy, who have a richly talented practitioner of their own in Edoardo Gori, as the hot favourite to start the home World Cup as his country’s senior scrum-half. It will not be plain sailing for him, for the simple reason that England have their best bank of No 9s since Matt Dawson, Kyran Bracken, Austin Healey and Andy Gomarsall were fighting like ferrets in a sack in the early years of the professional era. Care and Dickson are still hungry for recognition; Richard Wigglesworth of Saracens has the kicking and game-management skills to make his presence felt, particularly when big games tighten up in the last quarter; a rejuvenated Joe Simpson of Wasps is playing the house down again.

But Youngs takes a simple view of competition. “If you play well when you’re given a chance,” he says, “what more can you do?”

FIVE NINES IN THE HUNT

Ben Youngs (Leicester)

The best all-round option, capable of delivering a full range of skills at the highest level. Prone to distraction, but his focus is improving with age and club captaincy.

Chances of starting at World Cup: 9.5/10

Richard Wigglesworth  (Saracens)

His mastery of the tactical kicking game puts him ahead of more dynamic, individualistic rivals. No great running threat, but a game-managing manipulator of quality.

6.5/10

Danny Care (Harlequins)

The arch-opportunist. No scrum-half asks more of defences from dead-ball and broken-field situations, but his playing of the percentages leaves much to be desired.

5.5/10

Lee Dickson (Northampton)

The tempo specialist. More than anyone, Dickson has the ability to raise the pace of a game through force of personality. No point of difference in skill-set, however.

5/10

Joe Simpson (Wasps) 

Quicker than anyone. Simpson made the last World Cup squad, but was a peripheral figure. If his upturn in form continues, he may just press for something better this time.

5/10

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