James Lawton: England's Gareth Edwards? Youngs can aim that high

The scrum-half has a maverick streak, a creative impulse born of nerve and imagination which last autumn achieved a stunning breakthrough against Australia
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The Independent Online

Benjamin Ryder Youngs is not a trifling name but then nor are the possibilities for its 21-year-old owner. Astonishingly, in that he is making his first start in Six Nations rugby tonight against Wales, England's scrum-half is charged not only with making a strikingly decisive impression but maybe even setting the tournament's agenda.

It is a tribute to something which might be described as instant gravitas, a potential to stride quickly beyond the line that separates the merely good players from the potentially great.

Youngs may be in no more than the foothills of such ambition but there is no question he has created an extraordinary degree of expectation.

Indeed, in Cardiff it will not be too fanciful to believe that we may just be appraising the best thing to happen to the English game since Jonny Wilkinson first announced he had the weight of dedication and obsessive competitiveness to make himself one of the world's most significant players.

In a certain way, of course; in a marvellously consistent but ultimately predictable fashion that was anchored by his metronome kicking and his willingness to step in the way of anything less formidable than an inflamed rhino.

Wilkinson had a ton of desire, courage and technique, but there is at least the possibility that Youngs may well prove to have something of even greater value. He could have the capacity not just to win games with his strength and his aggressive approach but also shape them with his wit.

Youngs is different, certainly, from the quintessentially English rugby man Wilko. Though he looks what he undoubtedly is, a sturdy young athlete of impeccable bloodline, with a father who played for Leicester and England and a brother good enough to earn a living at hooker, there is something more, something that is not so frequently identified in men wearing the red rose on a white shirt, especially not by the French and still less the Welsh.

Youngs has a maverick streak, a creative impulse born of nerve and imagination which last autumn achieved an early, stunning breakthrough when he did something a young Gareth Edwards would have proudly claimed for both its vision and its execution. He gathered the ball in the shadow of his own posts, slipped a tackle and set up the try that broke Australia's belief that they could inflict their own superb running game.

Youngs was playing his fifth international and in that moment he gave himself a challenge which will face one of its most vigorous early examinations at the Millennium Stadium.

The bookmakers have England as narrow Six Nations favourites at 15-8, with France 2-1 and Ireland 3-1. Wales, who were threatening to light up the rugby skies again not so long ago, have much to prove tonight. They have to say that their renaissance was not a still-born victim of galloping hubris and for Mike Phillips, a show-stopping scrum-half on the best of his days, there is the most crucial chore of subduing Youngs.

If Australia, a critically misfiring Australia we have to say, had been able to contain him that day at Twickenhan they would surely have splintered England manager Martin Johnson's hopes for more than mere competitive respectability.

Youngs ran and passed beyond the boundaries of what we had come to hope from the best of English rugby performance. He explored every point of Australian weakness. It means Wales must pay him the closest attention tonight – soon enough it may also be true of all of rugby.