Youngs hails 'brutal honesty' of those who spoke out
Scrum-half says input from England players was necessary after their failure at World Cup in New Zealand, writes Hugh Godwin
As far as Ben Youngs is concerned, when England gather next month to make ready for the Six Nations' Championship, it will be a reunion as much as a revolution.
Stuart Lancaster, the new, temporary head coach of the national side, and his assistant Andy Farrell were the men who gave Youngs his debut for the country's A team, the Saxons, two years ago.
"Stuart is a top guy, a very honest guy, he'll drive standards and make sure we're going in prepared as best as we can," said Youngs, and though you might not expect him to say otherwise, in the circumstances of Lancaster, Farrell and Graham Rowntree forming England's interim regime, the Leicester scrum-half is never shy of expressing an edgy opinion.
Take Youngs's view on the confidential submissions made by England's players after the recent World Cup. The comments emerged with a leak that stank out the nation, but the unflattering views on the England set-up – from which Martin Johnson, manager, and Brian Smith, attack coach, subsequently resigned – were a good thing, according to Youngs.
"It's good that the report was done by players," said Youngs. "They're the guys out there playing. You've got to be open and you've got to be honest. At times, it was brutally honest. But there's credit to the players that did it, because it needed to be said. The guys that didn't submit to it, well, you look at them and, firstly, they probably couldn't be arsed to fill it in. And I don't know why, because if they cared about it that much they'd have filled it in, because it was about the future of England. If they thought everything was brilliant, they could have said that. If they can't take part that's a bit sad, really."
Youngs's words come with the impassioned rider that "it's time to crack on now – an exciting time now for the Six Nations, without doubt". He had a switchback World Cup, entering it in recovery from a knee operation and, despite a match-winning try against Argentina, rarely getting close to his effervescent best. A rest period was required on his return and today he will play just his fourth match back for his club, Leicester, away to Clermont Auvergne in the Heineken Cup. He would dearly like England to model their set-piece attack on Leicester, who have an Australian backs coach, Matt O'Connor.
"The style Leicester play suits me and it suits Floody [Toby Flood, the England fly-half]," said Youngs. "My running game looks more fluid here than it did at the World Cup. The main thing is Matt gives you the shape to be able to do it, to be able to run. When you go round the corner you know you've got forwards with you. You look at [Australia's scrum-half] Will Genia, whenever he runs he's got forwards all around him, and he's just picking defenders off. It makes a nine's life very easy. When there's shape built around the 10 or the nine, you've got so many more options. We use it well at Leicester."
Lancaster was at Welford Road last weekend, running the rule over umpteen England candidates in a match between Leicester and Northampton match that included an all-in brawl for no extra admission money. On Thursday, at Twickenham, Lancaster said he saw Youngs alongside the Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care and Northampton full-back Ben Foden as putative members of a "leadership group" that the coach will "spend more time with". The group would comprise one or two players from each of the front row, second row, back row, half-backs and back three, regardless of age.
Time is not on England's side. The Heineken Cup pool stage finishes on 22 January, the day the national squad are due in Portugal for a week's warm-weather training. Halfway through it the coach and a new captain will flit back to London for the press launch of the Six Nations; England's opener against Scotland in Edinburgh is on 4 February.
Youngs remembers well his Saxons debut, a 17-13 defeat of Ireland A at Bath in January 2010. Six weeks later the then 20-year-old made his senior debut in Scotland. He believes he earned the call-up in the back-to-back meetings between Leicester and Clermont the previous December – coincidentally the same fixtures at the same stage as the Tigers face this week.
"It was a hell of a game [in France]," Youngs said. "Clermont came out absolutely firing, the bands and the drums were playing, and we were absolutely battered up front. They got their offloads going and we've got to isolate that and stop it this time."
At the World Cup, Youngs was bemused to see Morgan Parra playing for France at fly-half. Parra will be wearing his customary No 9 jersey for Clermont today and outside him there are new recruits attracted by oodles of Euros. The Wales full-back Lee Byrne and All Black wing Sitiveni Sivivatu will start with the former Scarlets centre Regan King and France fly-half David Skrela among the replacements.
"We scraped by against Northampton," said Youngs of Leicester's relief-laden first home Premiership win of the season, eight days ago. "Hopefully we've got a bit of momentum going now."
Clermont Auvergne v Leicester Tigers is on Sky Sports 2 today, kick-off 3pm
Our friends from the north
The new England have no truck with the idea that it's grim up north. "Part of our role," said Andy Farrell, a Wiganer, cheek by jowl with fellow northerners Graham Rowntree and Stuart Lancaster as the national side's caretaker coaches, "is to make sure that the culture in the first weekwhen we meet is one of drive and excitement and getting the smile back on people's faces."
Despite the recessionary times, Twickenham will be full to its 80,000 capacity when England meet Wales on 26 February. The crowd's mood by then may be swayed more by the opening Six Nations Championship matches, away in Scotland and Italy, than the bad publicity during and after the recent World Cup. Asked about the latter acrimony, Farrell said: "We've all got caught up in things other than rugby. What's the main thing about rugby? It's about filling this place here at Twickenham and people going away happy. If people go away happy it means that the players are happy as well. Winning is secondary to something that you need to get right first and that's the culture and that's people believing in one another and playing for one another."
Rowntree, it was suggested, was now England's most southerly coach, having been a long-time Leicester prop. "But I was born in Stockton-on Tees," he pointed out. Lancaster hails from Penrith in Cumbria. "He wins then," said Rowntree – with a smile.
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