Like father, like son, Youngs dreams of beating All Blacks

Nick Youngs was in the England team who defeated New Zealand back in 1983. Twenty-seven years later, his son Ben – also a scrum-half– is hoping to do the same. Hugh Godwin talks to both men
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The Independent Online

There is a tempting lineage to Ben Youngs' life which points towards him winning with England against New Zealand in three weeks' time, but the Leicester scrum-half and rapidly rising star knows better than to rely on history. Unusuallyin a fixture which has been his country's least successful down the years, Youngs' father Nick and his specialist coach Kyran Bracken – former England scrum-halves both – each enjoyed a victory over the All Blacks at Twickenham, and on their debuts to boot. Youngs has three caps behindhim and all that matters is living up to expectations. "I can't stand still for one moment or this shirt will go in a blink of an eye," he says. More than a few good opponents have felt the same about him.

Meeting the 21-year-old Youngs after training at Leicester, and catching up separately with his father and Bracken – who had their All Black triumphs in 1983 and 1993 respectively, both by 15-9 with not a try in sight – the clear impression is of a well-rounded talent built on solid foundations. Bracken is employed by Leicester to coach their half-backs once a fortnight. "I'm enjoying working with Ben to improve his game," he says. "Suffice to say, he is better than me or his dad. Our wins over New Zealand were in the amateur era and the game has changed massively. There is one parallel, though. The thrill of winning would be the same now as it was then." Youngs senior, a farm manager in north Norfolk and head of a tight-knit rugby-loving family, concurs. "It is still a big thing to beat the All Blacks," he says. "You just don't do it, do you? They are an amazing team who consistently produce fine rugby players."

The Rothmans Rugby Yearbook recorded him as man of the match and said his "punting played a vital part". It draws a hearty laugh and not a hint of disagreement. "We had a fairly standard ploy which was to pump the ball up in the air and chase it," Nick says. "Get behind their pack and do some damage."

The game has altered since last year, never mind 1983, and Martin Johnson, the England manager, said recently of the refereeing directives: "Possession is good to have again. In layman's terms, you don't want to kick it back, you want to keep it." But is it really so different? As Nick points out: "You never know. The rain could come down at Twickenham, and a few clever box kicks could be the right tactic." England have won six of 33 meetings with New Zealand and none of the last eight since 2003.

Ben has rocketed from third choice at his club just over a year ago to a first inclusion in England's senior squad in January, a debut off the bench in Scotland in March, and a start and dazzling try in the second-Test win in Australia in June. He has two more possible outings with Leicester – this afternoon at home to the Scarlets in the Heineken Cup and next Saturday when Bath visit Welford Road in the Premiership – before the England squad gather next Sunday. He and Harlequins' Danny Care are the nominated scrum-halves.

"Ben doesn't dwell on things too long and that's his strength," says Nick. "He doesn't worry about it, he just plays. He likes to create, to identify holes for people." Yet Ben is showing a knack for timely tries. His clever snipe through the remnants of a line-out spurred England to that Sydney victory. After a quiet season's debut at Northampton – "the first few games, it took a while to get going" – he resumed that form with a coruscating try from halfway at Wasps, tapping a free-kick and skirting the home team's full-back Mark van Gisbergen like a speedboat round a lighthouse. A shorter-range effort in Treviso last weekend showed his determination: legs pumping, elbows repelling two opponents' grasping hands.

"Maybe people are more wary of what you're going to do," Ben says, "but I'm always working hard on new stuff. As people try and adapt to stop you, you've got to adapt to exploit them. I like to think I never force a break. You watch some guys and they force it when it's not on. I don't mind if I go 80 minutes without a break as long as we win. But there are chances out there and I try and exploit them when I get the chance."

He played a lot at fly-half in his teens, and kicked 17 points for Leicester in defeating the Springboks last season, though Toby Flood's presence today means that skill will remain in reserve. Flood's return from injury also reunites England's incumbent half-back combination. Is Youngs treated any differently at Tigers now he's an international? "No, don't be silly!" he says with a burst of laughter. "I'm still the young kid, I still clear away after training." Actually I'd wondered if the banter had worsened? "No, it's fine. There's no egos at the club and if there were it'd soon get beaten out of us on the training field."

Last summer Tigers lost some serious nous, if not egos. Two England players, Harry Ellis and Ben Kay, retired; forwards Lewis Moody and Brett Deacon and midfielders Aaron Mauger and Sam Vesty moved on. "We've got some new leaders now," says Youngs. "Toby [Flood] and Crofty [the England flanker, Tom] are 24, 25, and they have stepped up" – at which point Croft emerges like a Blind Date contestant from behind a screen where he has been doing another interview. "I was bigging him up," shouts Youngs, delighted at the coincidence. "And I just saw this lanky idiot walk past."

But he has a veritable brains trust of scrum-halves at his disposal. Ellis, who sadly succumbed to knee trouble, is in touch and on the end of a phone if required. And Bracken? "Everyone knows Kyran had a terrificpass and great kicking game," says Ben. "He didn't win all those caps (51) for nothing. It puts you in a good place at the weekend to know you've done that work with him before games."

Nick says he has one England photo somewhere in an album, and a cap in a cabinet in his office. Memories and memorabilia were not important in raising his sons Tom (who shares his dad's stocky build and has switched from centre to hooker on loan from Leicester to Nottingham) and Ben. He urged them to play a team sport, to enjoy the camaraderie. "And they really took to it," says Nick. "When I think of Ben at 10 years of age, saying 'I want to play for England'... you just think 'of course you do – like the other three million kids playing mini-rugby on a Sunday morning'. I feel incredibly blessed that he has played for England. We'll wait and see who gets selected but I'm hoping he can repeat what we did in '83."

Nick watched the Sydney Test on television (a friend was unable to travel so he cancelled the flight). "I was off my seat about a metre from the screen, fists pumping." He and his wife Trot attend all Leicester's home matches and take in Tom's whenever they can. "On rotation," Ben calls it; a Freudian phrase which comes from rugby not crops.

Tom is the one expected to join the family business, farming wheat, barley, sugar beet and vegetables near the north Norfolk coast. "I let Ben out one day and the next thing we knew he'd driven the tractor into a ditch," Nick recalls. Ben says: "A lovely lifestyle, but not for me." England's next in line as No 9 knows the furrow he wants to plough, and it is exclusively on the rugby field.

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