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Youngs Guns (Go For It)

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Tom Fordyce | 17:24 UK time, Thursday, 4 November 2010

Autumn might not be the traditional time for sunny optimism, but with piles of dead leaves heaped up around the trees of Twickenham there is an unseasonal spring in the step of England rugby supporters.

Never mind that their opponents on Saturday are the number one team in the world, or that England's record against the All Blacks in the preceding 105 years contains a mere six white-shirted wins, or that this fresh hope seems to spring from a single-point win in Sydney in the summer and a rain-soaked defeat in Paris back in March.

Whereas last autumn there was so little expectation from home fans that a 19-6 defeat in the corresponding fixture was viewed by some as a decent result, this weekend a fresh-faced and - whisper it quietly - dynamic-looking England XV has even stirred talk of a first win over New Zealand in eight years.

It shouldn't make sense. On Saturday there's a good chance it won't. But even within the squad there is a genuine sense of green shoots squeezing through.

"There's a huge amount of enthusiasm and a real buzz, and an excitement about where we are compared to the best teams in the world, and that's down to the win in Sydney," says 21-year-old Ben Youngs, the leader of this precocious pack.

"It's very obvious in the camp. Everyone is very excited and can't wait to see how we fare against the All Blacks."

Scrum-half Youngs, hailed by Austin Healey as a potential world-beater and by Jeremy Guscott as "for his age, the best northern hemisphere scrum-half I have seen in years", was the breakthrough star of that summertime win over Australia.

His darting first-half try set the tone for the tourists' renaissance in the second Test, his ostentatious dive over the line a subconscious symbol of his side's liberation from the shackles of the preceding season.

Ben Youngs dives over for his try in Sydney

Youngs dives over for his try in Sydney

"It was a very special moment for me - it helped us kick on and win the game," he recalls. "There was the big dive, but to score for England on your full debut is always going to feel good."

Youngs will be making his first home start for England this weekend. Yet so impressive were his two performances down under and his displays for Leicester in the past 12 months that he looks every inch the answer to England's long search for a consistent first-choice nine.

Since Matt Dawson swapped box-kicks for kitchens and commentary boxes, there has been a virtual parade past the base of the scrum: Peter Richards, Shaun Perry, Andy Gomarsall, Richard Wigglesworth, Danny Care, Harry Ellis and Paul Hodgson have all taken their turn.

What might guarantee Youngs the jersey for a while longer is his startlingly full set of skills - a fast, flat pass that requires no two-step start; pin-point perfect kicking from hand and tee; the vision to put away team-mates close to the breakdown and enough pace and swerve - what Antipodeans call "toe" - to tear holes in the tightest defence.

What we're about to find out is how he handles the pressure of both an expectant Twickenham crowd and a rampaging Richie McCaw.

"What happened in Australia has had an effect on me," he admits. "There's an expectation now, in terms of you can't afford to have bad performances for your club, there has to be a consistency, they're looking for you to score more often, and how has he not scored there...

"I think teams are more aware of you, but I've put the hard work in post-Sydney to enable me to kick on as a player and still be one step ahead of the props defending."

Youngs' well-developed game is testament to the various luminaries who have influenced him over the years, starting with his father Nick - scrum-half himself for Leicester and England in the 1980s, and part of the England team that ground out a 15-9 win over the All Blacks 27 years ago.

"Dad taught me to spin-pass off both hands," says Youngs, who used to practise with his hooker brother Tom - now on loan at Nottingham - in the fields around the family farm in Norfolk. Their father even constructed a makeshift set of posts from irrigation pipes to allow the pair to hone their kicking skills.

As an impressionable teenager, Youngs then modelled himself on New Zealand's flying full-back Christian Cullen - "simply for his attacking play, and the way he could beat players. When you're a kid you just want to run with the ball. To be able to see someone run that fluently and just beat defenders encourages you to play rugby."

From the colts side at North Walsham he was then spotted by England and Tigers legend Dusty Hare and brought into the famed Leicester academy. "If it hadn't been for Dust I wouldn't be there. He got me to the academy, helped me with my goal kicking and kicking in play, and then I had Neil Back and Andy Key when I first turned up, and (current England scrum coach) Graham Rowntree. It was a really good set-up, and you learned very quickly."

Next in line was another great England scrum-half - and victor over New Zealand, 17 years ago - Kyran Bracken, brought in by Leicester last year to keep an eye on their burgeoning number nines.

"Kyran comes in and helps me with my skills, with my passing and kicking. He puts me in good stead. And Matt O'Connor, the Leicester backs coach, has been amazing in helping with my game management and understanding. Kyran really knuckles down with my skills, but Matt's been the genius behind it, behind making me the player I am.

"Cockers (director of rugby Richard Cockerill) and the way we are at Leicester really helps me too. Wwe've got some world-class players, and all of them have their feet on the ground - we're quite sheltered there from the media which helps, and Cockers is very good at keeping me away from too much. If you ever do step out of line, you get slapped."

While Youngs' rise into the international elite has been meteoric (although he became Leicester's youngest-ever league player when he made his debut in 2007, he only made the first-team spot his own after Ellis's injury problems at the start of last season) he has his feet firmly rooted in reality. Two big factors in this are his house-mate - and club and country team-mate - Tom Croft, and his rural East Anglian roots.

"I've lived with Crofty for coming up to two years now," he says. "We have a good time together. And I go back to Norfolk as often as I can. That's my get-out. Everyone needs something away from rugby, and that gets my mind away from things. I've got a lot of cousins and we're all really close, so that helps freshen up my mind."

Ben Youngs relaxes in the countryside

Youngs relaxes in his native Norfolk

Four other Englishmen will also be making their home starting debuts on Saturday. That, the age of the new breed (Courtney Lawes 21, Chris Ashton and Dan Cole 23, Ben Foden 25) and the wholesale changes from a year ago (only two of the 15 who started against the All Blacks last autumn are in the team this time) lend credence to Martin Johnson's belief that he is bringing through fresh blood at the right time.

Others might disagree. While Youngs' progression is testament to the careful husbandry of the national age-group set-up - he played for England Under-16 and U18s, and was in the U20 team that won a Grand Slam in 2008 - there is an argument that Foden and Lawes, at least, should have been making their full home bows in the corresponding series a year ago.

Contrast the number of caps won by England's new breed with those accrued by Australia's battle-hardened youngsters. David Pocock, Will Genia and Quade Cooper are all 22 but are playing like Test veterans, arguably the best in their positions anywhere in the world; aged 20, James O'Connor has more Wallaby caps under his belt than years.

Come the World Cup in 10 months' time, which side will be in better shape?

For now, the focus will remain on short-term success. "New Zealand have played a game (against Australia in Hong Kong) but they have also had to travel and change time zones," says Martin Johnson. "We have had two weeks' preparation, we just need to go out there and do it now."

Youngs is keenly aware of the magnitude of the task ahead. His opposite number Alby Mathewson might be making his starting debut at scrum-half, but Youngs has already tasted defeat by New Zealand twice in his nascent career - 36-3 in 2008 and 44-28 in 2009, both in the same England U20 team as Lawes.

"The expectation is massive," he says. "They've got world-class players throughout. But I think we're ready for it, coming off the back of what happened in Sydney, to test ourselves against the best in the world.

"We will go out there and try to take it to them. You can't let any opportunities they give you slip away. We're not scared. We will give it a proper go."


  • Comment number 1.

    Im glad that the new breed of youngsters are coming through...but be realistic...we're going to lose!

  • Comment number 2.

    Realisticly, i'd be happy to see the units working together well, things like the front 5, back row and centre pairing all need to show they can work together as a unit against the best.

    Hape needs to answer his critics and put in a solid display in attack and defense against the beasts in the backs for the AB's.

    Lastly although i don't want a drubbing from NZ, for me the result is second to the quality of the game so i can forgive a loss if the players put in a good show and score a try or two!!

  • Comment number 3.

    England might win. Can't see it but it's possible - as Tom says, compared to last year when there was no hope at all, at least this time round a win wouldn't be totally inconceivable.
    Haven't made up my mind whether an England win would signify strides forward for England or an alarming dip in form for NZ...

    On paper anyway, England have some players who are distinctly inferior to their opposite numbers, thinking here Hape, Palmer, Cueto, Moody.

    Maybe Tindall too - but SBW is still a bit of an unknown quantity so I'll reserve judgement till after the game. Will be interesting to see how Tindall manages the contain Williams. The limited but wily old soldier against the musclebound young superhero.

    Returning to the point of the article, one player who definitely isn't inferior is Youngs. For once in my life I agree with Jeremy Guscott!

  • Comment number 4.

    I think the biggest question mark has to be over the centre pairing. Tindall was an awesome 12, but you have to wonder where the imagination is going to come from in the middle of the field.

  • Comment number 5.

    Geat article and a great talent. I think tomorrow might be a week early for England, its a shame that the All Blacks are this week and not in the coming weeks as I think England will need a week to gel and get formations right, Im saying a loss this week by 10 and then to go unbeaten in the 3 other matches.

  • Comment number 6.

    Tom good blog. Your question on whether the young fellas should have been thrown in earlier: "Contrast the number of caps won by England's new breed with those accrued by Australia's battle-hardened youngsters. David Pocock, Will Genia and Quade Cooper are all 22 but are playing like Test veterans"

    There is definitely an argument our lads could have been put in earlier but what if they were thrown in last year, and took a battering in a poor team? Instead the same young guns took on these Aussie "veterans" a short while back and beat them in their own back yard. I'd counter the argument that they had another year learning within the framework of what Johnson is trying to achieve, learning the structures, tactics and calls, putting them in the best position to hit the ground running when they were unleashed.

    I'd like to give Johnson credit for ignoring some elements of the media and sticking to the longer term plan. I hope the guys put in a real performance tomorrow and I even have giddy thoughts we might spring a surprise. Shame on me!

  • Comment number 7.

    OK, we know we are up against the World's best in NZ, but I am more excited about this new generation of talent than I have been for a long time. I am looking forward to us giving it a real go, if we lose, we lose, but lets make a statement tomorrow at Headquarters.

  • Comment number 8.

    Great article. 'His ostentatious dive over the line a subconscious symbol of his side's liberation from the shackles of the preceding season' - beautiful!

    I think it has been a while coming but we have some really exciting talent coming through - care is still a great player and determind to get the shirt back and joe simpson is a fantastic player if he can stay injury free.

    Can't wait for the weekend! I'm looking forward to Lawes smashing a few reputations - he seems to have no fear of anyone.

    Even if it to be a loss for England, it will still be an excellent advert for rugby and a fascinating encounter with match ups like Moody v McCaw, Gear v Ashton, Foden v Muliaina, Hape v SBW, etc!

    Roll on Saturday.

  • Comment number 9.

    "his ostentatious dive over the line a subconscious symbol of his side's liberation from the shackles of the preceding season."

    give me a break....

  • Comment number 10.

    diddyt01, raging_bull - what's your predicted score?

    Yappysnap, chucky1973 - that question of untried combos and whether England could have benefited from meeting the ABs a week later is a good one. Might take time for the new partnerships to blend, yet if there's one thing you don't get against those boys it's time.

    Craig Mac - fair point. I guess we won't know who got it right until this time next year. I've got the Wallabies down as my World Cup winners - 60% hunch, 40% logic - so we'll see...

    hermmy, yeahmatty - what would your preferred pairing been at centre?

  • Comment number 11.

    "his ostentatious dive over the line a subconscious symbol of his side's liberation from the shackles of the preceding season."

    give me a break....'

    He's a journalist. Kiwi journos guff about some of their players as well. In saying that Tom, your in the wrong job mate - art history journalism would suit you well judging by those remarks.

  • Comment number 12.

    "And I go back to Norfolk as often as I can......... I've got a lot of cousins and we're all really close....."

    That's just asking for a cheap shot about the rampant inbreeding in Norfolk!

  • Comment number 13.

  • Comment number 14.

    8. At 10:37am on 05 Nov 2010, TomW wrote:
    I think it has been a while coming but we have some really exciting talent coming through - care is still a great player and determind to get the shirt back and joe simpson is a fantastic player if he can stay injury free.

    - You seriously still think Care should be anywhere near the England shirt?!! It was his slowness at the breakdown that I put largely to blame for the past couple of years miserable Eng viewing. I am not merely talking about the two steps to pass the ball that most highlight but it is arriving at the breakdown, having a look around, thinking about what to do next, then most annoyingly usually choosing to bring in a couple of props to stand next to him for five minutes before the short pass and a pointless reset!!

    Youngs over the summer just arrived digged out the ball asap then passed it or ran with it. Thus providing the all important quick ball, and alas all of a sudden the team looked threatening!

    I two am excited about Englands prospects this weekends and believe Youngs is indeed the catalyst for this, I just hope our optimism is merited come Saturday evening.

  • Comment number 15.

    Really looking forward to this clash on the weekend. NZ is pumped with the AB’s recent performances, last weekend excluded, even though looking rusty and playing badly they still could have nicked it.

    I truly believe if the AB’s find their groove England won’t be within 20 points. However my only worry for Saturday is Youngs against Alby Matthewson. As good as Alby is, this will be a really tough battle and will be crucial in the outcome of the game.

    Interesting that the best player in the world hasn’t attracted much headlines before the game. Come Saturday his 100% goal kicking performance for the AB’s may just be the difference.

  • Comment number 16.

    As a ‘pomme’ who’s lived in New Zealand for 35 years let me give the England squad some good advice.

    The All Blacks play not to win but to ‘not lose’ – especially against their old colonial masters.

    New Zealanders despise their English ancestry and therefore the English squad. There is literally nothing better than beating them in the only way they can – RUGBY UNION!

    The ABs ‘fear’ losing against them. The country will not stand for it! This is their ‘pathological’ weakness. The weight of expectation is ‘HUGE’ in this respect. ‘Anybody but England’ would sum it up very well.

    ‘GET IN BEHIND’ – this is what NZ sheep farmers say to their dogs when rounding up sheep. Treat the AB’s like the (black)sheep they mentally are! Look them squarely in the eye with the ‘no nonsense from you’ look that (bull)dogs give sheep when rounding them up. Whisper in their ear during scrum and maul time with the words ‘GET IN BEHIND’ and they will respond like the ‘fearful’ sheep they really are.

  • Comment number 17.

    @#3: C'mon. England will be thrashed. The only question is, by how many points? I don't see England's rather technical, quite boring game getting them much past 20 points - the All Blacks will run the t-shirts off the English. AB to win by at least 15 points.

  • Comment number 18.

    Can't see England winning. I still think we're a nascent work in progress with areas that need addressing; beating NZ will take an 80 minute performance which I don't think England are capable of. As others have alluded to, I'd be quite happy with a good performance. It's the familiar refrain with Johnsons England; let's see some progress, some running and passing and skills executed at speed as this is the only way we'll win anything in future. Youngs looks a player and a model of what is required these days, an all-round game with the temparement to perform on the big stage. Excited that Lawes is in along with his Northampton team mates. My biggest concern being the centres; in my humble opinion neither Hape nor Tindall are the answer. Very little ability to shape or use space with Tindall, he's a willing old warhorse but we need a thoroughbred in there. He's proven over the years to be very one-dimensional but I hope I'm proved wrong.

  • Comment number 19.

    I overestimated the seriousness with which the AB would approach this game. But even with beone man less for 10 minutes, they were too good for England - and this an All Blacks side far from the best we have seen them. England looked clueless sometimes, especially when Tindall had the ball - he was too slow, and there didnt seem to be adequate leadership going through to the younger players. There won't be a better chance to notch up a win against the AB again until after the World Cup. Which will be held in NZ.


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