Tom Youngs looks an old hand at hooker already

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It can take years to learn front-row arts at Test level. David Hands reports on an educated debut

There will be few easier international debuts and Tom Youngs is sensible enough to know it. Even if he were not, a crowd of advisers, professional and amateur, were at Twickenham yesterday to tell him.

There may even have been a kindly old family retainer to whisper in his ear the fate of Andy Long who, at just this time of year in 1997, made his own debut at hooker in the first international XV to be picked by Clive Woodward who is still, in many ways, a touchstone for English rugby. Long did not last beyond half-time against Australia 15 years ago and only made one further England appearance in a long Premiership career.

That fate will not befall Youngs. Though he was replaced by David Paice with 14 minutes remaining, Youngs had done more than enough to ensure his place in this month's busy international programme while Dylan Hartley recovers from injury. Hartley, Northampton's hooker, has become a key leader in this England group but no player, however established, wants to see a young, ambitious rival given a run at the jersey he may consider, however privately, his.

But it has still been a remarkable journey for the older of the Youngs brothers – from under-20 centre to the middle of the front row is a feat unrivalled. Youngs played his first game at hooker in an A league game for Leicester in January 2009. He has started no more than 20 senior games for his club, with a score more appearances off the bench and one start for a midweek England XV in South Africa in June.

They say that it takes years to understand the niceties of playing in the front row at the highest level, and Youngs himself would be the first to admit that he is still coming to terms with all of them.

But within the first 15 minutes, a period when Fiji enjoyed some ascendancy in terms of possession and territory, Youngs was industrious enough to rid himself of any pre-match nerves. Five tackles, a couple of rucks hit, then the first of those carries which make him so distinctive: Youngs, a squat 5ft 9in, retains the direct strength which made him a target man as a centre and his mobility is one of the qualities which appeals to the England management.

He contributed two carries in the move that led to England's first score, a penalty by Toby Flood, and will have felt by then that he belonged. He did not lack for support, anyway: Nick, his father, was at his local cash-and-carry on Friday, stocking up for the 25-strong party in the Twickenham car park of family and friends, among them Tom's paternal grandparents, Gerry (86) and Helen (84), bursting with pride at the achievement of their son, who played for England, and now both their grandsons.

"I'm over the moon for him," Nick Youngs said. "The ingredients were always there, he's a powerful boy and he just took to it. He's gained the knowledge from all the guys at Leicester, from Mefin Davies, from Chuts [George Chuter, the former England hooker], Dan Cole, Julian White, and he'll get better with experience. He's always been mentally very tough – whatever he does, he rolls his sleeves up and gets on with it."

The concerns about Youngs' lineout throwing never materialised. Only one lineout went astray and that because of obstruction, though the ability of Fiji in that area will not match the expertise of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. At the scrums, England exercised a domination which, again, they will not enjoy against the southern- hemisphere powers later this month but which here helped Youngs to settle to his role.

"I'm delighted for Tom Youngs, that he came on and took his opportunities so well," Stuart Lancaster, England's head coach, said. And those lineouts? "He was under a bit of pressure coming into the game but he nailed every one," Lancaster added.

Youngs had been warned by his brother Ben that, in the opening period, he would be "hanging", taken aback at the pace of the game. That was never obvious and, just before he left the field, a remarkable pick-up from around his ankles in the move that led to a second try for Charlie Sharples suggested that his powers of concentration were undiminished by fatigue.

By that time he had been joined by two more debutants, Joe Launchbury and Mako Vunipola, both of whom received more game time than they might have expected. Last week Lancaster held forth on the qualities Launchbury, only 21, brings with him; in particular the coach praised the accuracy of his decision-making, which has never been an outstanding English attribute, and it is clear he regards the young Wasp as the lock forward of the future.

One gallop in a broken field showed how athletic he is, in strict contrast to Vunipola, the Saracens prop. No disrespect to Vunipola, also 21 and a replacement for the injured Joe Marler, but he brings a different kind of presence to the field. At 5ft 11in and tipping the scales at 20st, Vunipola is a line breaker of a different kind whose gifts have had his club coaches drooling – and they do not drool easily at Saracens.

Two pairs of tickets for England v South Africa in the QBE Internationals

The Independent on Sunday has teamed up with QBE, the business insurance specialist, to offer our readers two pairs of tickets to England v South Africa on 24 November. For your chance to win, answer the following question:

In which stadium will England play South Africa in the QBE Internationals?

a) Twickenham

b) Murrayfield

Email your answer along with your contact details (including address and daytime telephone number) to a.tong@independent.co.uk.

The deadline for entries is at 11am on Thursday 15 November.

For more information on QBE, Official Insurance Partner of England Rugby, visit www.QBEeurope.com. For exclusive content from the QBE Internationals visit www.QBErugby.com.

Entrants must be over 18. No more than one entry per household.

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