Youngs has done his homework but are England different class?


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There was no obvious reason for any red-rose player to remain neutral as Scotland and Argentina fought themselves to a standstill last weekend: after all, victory for the Six Nations side would have propelled England into the quarter-finals without further ado. Ben Youngs? He sat in the team room with his notebook on his knee, flatly refusing to take sides as the South Americans closed in on a famous triumph. "I was on the fence," the scrum-half said yesterday. "A couple of my good mates – Lucas Amorosino, Horacio Agulla – were playing for the Pumas, so I wasn't cheering for anyone."

This notebook business is intriguing, for the way Youngs tells it, every member of the England squad has turned studious. It is perfectly possible to imagine Jonny Wilkinson filling page after page of a foolscap pad with jottings: after all, the great man has been known to spend his spare time pondering the deeper philosophical implications of this outside-half's kicking style or that team's defensive alignment. But does the Leicester man really expect us to believe that the front-row troglodytes – Steve Thompson, say, or Dan Cole – have suddenly taken the pen-and-ink approach to match preparation?

"It's a squad thing," Youngs explained. "When you know who you're playing next in a tournament like this, you'd be a little bit foolish to watch them play a game and not do your best to pick up on certain things. We're professionals and we have to prepare as best we can. We have all Scotland's games from the last two years on our laptops and we can access them at any time. Everyone does their homework; no one goes out on the field without knowing the detail. Anything that gives us a slight advantage is valuable."

Youngs has had an interesting tournament: up, down, and up again. The joy of making a decisive try-scoring contribution off the bench against Argentina in the opening match was followed, eight days later, by something far less palatable as the Georgians gave him seven shades of hell around the fringes of scrum, ruck and maul. Rarely had Youngs looked so vulnerable – the direct consequence of his colleagues' failure to take the measure of the Eastern Europeans at close quarters. Happily for him, last weekend's showing against the Romanians was significantly better in all respects.

"The problem against Georgia was the clear-out," he said, referring to England's failure to move opposition forwards away from the ball at the breakdown. "We focused hard on that area before Romania and it paid off. We need to get it right there again this week because Scotland have a great back-row unit who can win turnovers from anywhere and they'll be going hammer and tongs. We must be more hungry than them, more passionate, and we'll have to match them physically. If we can do that, we'll be in a good place. And we're confident we can do it. We're three from three in this tournament; we're the ones in control. We haven't been consistent in our attacking game, but I would always want to operate behind an England pack."

Martin Johnson, the England manager, will name his side tomorrow. Wilkinson is expected to start ahead of Toby Flood at outside-half, while Matt Stevens is set to return at loose-head prop – ahead of Alex Corbisiero – provided his ankle sprain clears up to the satisfaction of the medical team. Johnson's most awkward decisions are at left wing, where Mark Cueto and Delon Armitage are neck and neck, and at lock, where Courtney Lawes, available again after suspension, appears to have a marginal advantage over Tom Palmer.