James Lawton: Youngs the precocious commander delivers timely rebuttal to doubters
If ever anyone deserved a lifting of pressure, a sense that there is more than a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel, then it was surely Martin Johnson
Monday 15 November 2010
This was, for Ben Youngs, 21-year-old England scrum-half, a rugby equivalent of the washing of the spears. It was a rite of passage of quite stunning accomplishment and not only did it cut down the world's second-ranked rugby nation, it also provided a withering rebuttal of a claim made, certainly in this quarter, in the wake of last week's worthy losing performance against the All Blacks.
The charge was that the nation with the world's largest player population, and an army of coaches, was incapable of producing the kind of individual ability which has for long marked the ascendency of the southern hemisphere axis of New Zealand, Australia and current world champions South Africa.
The stranglehold was broken, briefly it seemed, in 2003 when England won the World Cup in Sydney, and then lapsed into a combination of hubris and mediocrity.
It is always dangerous to build too much around a single performance but it would be less than giving unto the young warriors – the wing Chris Ashton and lock Courtney Lawes were not far behind Youngs in their impact and influence – what is their due, after a brilliant defeat of Australia and their all singing and dancing back division, not to accept the possibility that we may have just seen the first signs of the end of a downward cycle.
With the World Cup just a year away, confirmation of such promise will have to come in something of a rush now but the encouragement on a grey, cold autumn afternoon went beyond the precocious generalship of Youngs, the try-scoring surges of Ashton and the immense presence of Lawes.
It was also to be found in the refusal of the long-besieged coach and former legend, Martin Johnson, to step away from the reality that one near-perfect performance is still less than a foundation on which to believe he has created a new rugby empire.
However, if ever anyone deserved a lifting of pressure, a sense that, after two and a half years of mostly bleak discouragement, there was more than a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel, it was surely Johnson.
Against the negligent All Blacks there was some reason to make another accusation against England. It was that, too often, they looked as if they were playing by numbers and that their greatest achievement was a degree of damage control.
Against the Australian virtuosos, who defeated New Zealand so recently, England put a neck-hold on anyone contemplating another dose of faint praise.
In the interests of the widest perspective, it is probably necessary to say that the Australians, like the All Blacks, also had their careless moments, most pivotally when Will Genia made the wrong decision, neglected to feed an overlap – when Matt Giteau was in the sin bin – and then watched Youngs initiate the move that saw Ashton score a try to place alongside the fabled one scored by Prince Obolensky all those years ago.
If Genia had done the right thing, Australia would have been just one score away. As it was, they were broken by the startling belief – and nerve – of a new England team.
It wasn't entirely a victory for English youth. The 31-year-old Tom Palmer was an immense partner for Lawes in the second row, Mark Cueto, 30, found lashings of his old appetite and, at 25, Toby Flood has suddenly found an old head to go along with his metronomic, Wilkinsonian place kicking.
Youngs was, however, at the heart of everything. He said later that his fifth cap had come with the still lingering pain of the defeat by the All Blacks, a day which left him with the anguish of believing that he had done less than he might have. It is one explanation for a performance of quite relentless application. Another is that some competitors will always be born rather than made.
Young's contribution to Ashton's game-breaking try was something on its own as a statement of ambition and vision and confidence in his power to make the right decision under any level of pressure. It was the precise opposite to playing by numbers. It was originality of the highest order and it shattered that suspicion that England were lacking a vital dimension in their game.
However, if the great breakout from their own line had not happened, England would still have been able to look back on a performance filled with both passion and intelligence.
Youngs' special distinction was that no one better embodied a coach's dream of a performance from a young player of superior tempo and imagination. He combined the virtues of a bulldog and a whippet. No, he didn't quite morph into Gareth Edwards but what he did do, beyond any question, was make an unequivocal statement about his readiness for the push towards the World Cup. He is ready and, most certainly, able.
He offered the greatest reward of any sport. It is the sense of supreme effort and wit, a statement that for a little while what you are doing is the most important challenge on earth.
It was an approach that proved utterly contagious.
Australia's losing coach Robbie Deans wasn't effusive – Antipodeans rarely are – but his recognition of England's progress was another reason for Johnson to believe that he may well have achieved a moment of breakthrough. Deans said that Australia had come second in all departments – and nor was he too surprised. He had monitored England's progress and had brought into the game a strong sense of how keen they would be to draw some return on their improvement.
Every Australian apprehension was confirmed. The threat presented by the stunning ability of their backs was never totally suppressed, a fact underlined by a superb try from full-back Kurtley Beale, but at no point did England suggest they might easily be diverted from a game plan bursting with new life.
They weren't pushing numbers, by no means. They were playing for a future that, at the very least, had been drained of fear. Their spears were washed – and gleaming.
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