Martin Johnson knew all there was to know about Ben Youngs' skill-set long before they made him first-choice scrum-half for last weekend's meeting with the Wallabies. What was not obvious was the player's capacity to make the right decisions under pressure.It is now. Youngs made all the right calls in inspiring England to a treasured Test victory on Australian soil– their first in the southern hemisphere since World Cup final night in 2003 – and is making them still.
"Some of the players are heading to Las Vegas after this tour," he said yesterday. "As I'm only 20 and can't legally buy a beer in the States, I won't be joining them. It's been quite a season for me and I have a lot of reflecting to do." Sensible lad.
English rugby's latest find is likely to feel some heat from his rivals next term. Very much a newcomer to the Premiership scene even now, he has been catching opponents on the hop since playing his way into Leicester's senior side last autumn. Those opponents won't get fooled again. Youngs will have to tweak his game.
Is he fazed by the challenge? Not even remotely. "I'm not sure the 'second-season syndrome' thing has to be an issue," he argued. "Not if you work hard enough. The main priority will be to knuckle down and stay on top of my skills. Also, I'll study some tapes of other half-backs here and there. I do a lot of that. It's good to know what the rest are doing."
Youngs singled out Justin Marshall, the recently retired All Black, and Frenchmen Julien Dupuy and Dimitri Yachvili for praise. "Marshall was a quality player; I've been watching tapes of him for years," he said. "The French guys play the game differently, but they seem to have this 'little general' side to them. I'm always interested in learning from people who have the x-factor."
Along with second-row forwards Courtney Lawes of Northampton and Dave Attwood of Gloucester, Youngs can count himself among the big winners of this five-match tour – assuming he successfully negotiates today's game with the New Zealand Maori, for which he was named as a replacement. Since arriving Down Under he has made his first England start and scored his first England try. Up close, he still looks what he is: a kid fresh out of age-group rugby seeking to make his way in the game as it is played by grown-ups. Viewed from the stand, however, his rugby tells a different story. "Let's be honest," said fellow scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth. "He's set the bar very high for the rest of us with that performance in Sydney."
As far as Youngs is concerned, that bar is not high enough. "Anyone who considers the England shirt to be theirs is a bit of a mug," he said. "Especially in the scrum-half position. A run of good performances from one of your rivals could change everything. And anyway, it could be a short career."
Optimists will look at it another way. Youngs could have three World Cups in him, starting with next year's competition in New Zealand. At the 2007 tournament, Brian Ashton did not have a No 9 of international quality. Johnson, his successor as coach, can count himself very fortunate indeed.