When the cameras pan to Ben Youngs running out for his 100th cap this autumn, he may well cast back his mind to Christmas, 1998. His grandfather built a set of rugby posts using old irrigation pipes from the family farm, paving the way for England’s next Test centurion.
‘I woke up on Christmas morning to find them,’ says Youngs. ‘I would spend hours out there with my cousin, Monty, pretending to be Christian Cullen. My brother, Tom, preferred working on the farm but occasionally he’d join in… and then get in trouble for splattering me!’
It was during those rough and tumble games that Youngs first discovered the art of evasion, as he danced around his bigger brother, who had built up his strength carrying boxes of sugar beet.
Ben Youngs is on the verge of winning his 100th cap for England in the Autumn internationals
The 31-year-old has come a long way from playing as a youngster on his family farm (pictured with brother Tom and father)
‘We banged up these posts in the garden, down by the apple trees,’ adds his father, Nick, a former England scrum-half. ‘There are 27 nieces and nephews so they would play a game every weekend. Tom was always more physical, so Ben learnt to sidestep very quickly!’
At a young age, Youngs and his brother both joined Holt RFC. They share fond memories of running around in the coastal winds, wearing oversized shorts, before their rugby journey took them to Leicester Tigers. Their father has close ties with the club and would often receive feedback from the coaches. ‘When they get to 14, 15, 16 years old, you can tell if someone’s got pace and a good skillset,’ says Youngs Snr.
‘I loved going to watch them play, standing behind the posts with a bacon sandwich. Ben played fly-half until he was 17, when he switched to scrum-half. By 18, I was getting feedback from pretty experienced people like Dusty Hare saying he could be a bit special.’
Ben (right) and brother Tom (left) would play in a field with a set of home-made rugby posts
Youngs has gone on to play a starring role in Eddie Jones’ side, particularly in the World Cup
Youngs was given an early taste of success. He became the Premiership’s youngest debutant as a teenager. Almost 14 years later, he finds himself on the brink of joining World Cup winner Jason Leonard as England’s second player to make the 100-cap club.
Sunday’s now cancelled fixture against the Barbarians would not have counted towards the tally, but Eddie Jones has already hinted that Youngs will reach the milestone against Italy in Rome next week.
‘When Tom left home to join Leicester, I just wanted to follow in his footsteps,’ says Youngs. ‘You get your foot in the door, then you want to play for the academy, then you want a senior contract. You had goals that you slowly chipped away at. The more taste you had, the more you wanted.’
For safekeeping, Youngs’ parents arranged for his first England cap to be framed. Today it takes pride of place on a bookshelf in his own children’s playroom. It was awarded after his debut in Scotland in 2010, at which stage the prospect of becoming a centurion had never even entered his mind.
The Leicester Tigers scrum half has seen dramatic changes both on and off the pitch
‘Martin Johnson came up to me on the Tuesday and said, “You’ll be on the bench this weekend”,’ says the scrum-half. ‘I thought he was talking about the Leicester game and I said, “No, I’m not actually, because it’s the EDF Cup and we’re not in it”.
‘Anyway, Danny Care was starting and we went up to Murrayfield for a 16-all draw. Ugo Monye got knocked out so I had to go on on the wing. I just remember Mike Ford, the defence coach at the time, running up and down the touchline telling me where to stand because I was out of position!’
As a debutant, Youngs was made to sing ‘Who is Alice?’ to his new team-mates, before he was handed a cocktail in the bar by hooker Steve Thompson. ‘They gave me a lesson in how to drink!’ he laughs. Since then, initiations have been watered down. The game has also changed on the pitch, with Youngs having to adapt to stay with the times. He has seen off every challenger for his No9 jersey and Jones said this week that he could go on to win 150 caps.
Initiations have been watered down, while the style of play has been drastically changed
‘The ability to adapt has probably been the thing that’s helped me,’ says Youngs, an ambassador for Dove Men+Care. ‘When I first started, defences were nowhere near as aggressive. They were a lot more passive and there was a lot more drift defence. Nowadays that time and space is cut down. Everything is so structured in terms of who goes where and there are probably a lot less opportunities. Kicking for territory has become a huge part of the game and if you overplay now, you get punished.
‘Kicking has become such a tactical weapon. You don’t want to waste phases in your own half because defences are so dominant and the breakdown is so fierce. Kick-chasing has become huge. 10 years ago, you might chase a box kick, you might not — guys would be chasing at different speeds. Now you’re flat out. There’s such an emphasis on winning it back. The desire to improve and never think that your game is complete keeps the fire in the belly. If I take my eye off the ball, the carpet will get pulled from underneath.’
Youngs has plenty of challengers hot on his heels and there have been calls for new blood, but the 31-year-old has no intention of stepping aside.
While he is one of the more experienced players now, Youngs feels he has plenty of games left
‘I’m not content,’ he says. ‘I want more and still feel I can give more. Whatever I’ve done isn’t where I want to be. There are plenty of guys still going in their 30s. There’s a perception that when you reach a certain age, that’s it. Richard Wigglesworth was outstanding against Leinster recently and he’s 37. There’s Federer, Zlatan, Ronaldo, plenty of people continue to stay at that level. And Grant Holt, good Norwich boy!
‘There are two things that are going to go: your body or your mind. My body feels great and my desire has never been so strong. I want to compete and there are plenty of guys who want to compete with me. It’s exciting.’
The office back on the farm has framed photographs of Tom on the 2013 Lions tour and Ben at the 2019 World Cup, but Youngs still wants to add more images to the collection. The 100th cap could take pride of place, however there is no danger of his father getting carried away.
‘Being a farmer, you never count your chickens,’ says Youngs Snr. ‘You think you have a good crop of sugar beet coming and the weather destroys it. When Ben does it, then we celebrate it.’
Ben Youngs is a Dove Men+Care ambassador. The Sport Active+Fresh range is available now nationwide. Care for every position you play.