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Monday, June 27, 2022

How Ben Youngs became England’s ‘squadfather’ on verge of caps record | England rugby union team

When Ben Youngs got married, in 2015, his best man, Tom Croft, pulled together a collection of his favourite things Youngs had come out with in the years they’d been playing together and published them in a book called … Stuff Ben Said. There was the time Youngs asked if Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger “were really twins”, when he said he “had only just learned he had two lungs”, asked whether the “place with all the stone heads was called Easter Egg Island” and the one when he called his brother Tom to ask why his stew was so dry. “Did you add stock?” Tom asked: “Yes, two cubes.” “And did you add water to the cubes?” Pause. “Do I need to?”

Youngs has reached another landmark this week. If all goes as it should do, he’ll play his 115th game for England on Saturday and break the England men’s caps record set by Jason Leonard in 2004 (although he is a way off the 137 games Rocky Clark played for England women).

Youngs isn’t saying so much this time, he did a podcast with the RFU, and an interview on behalf of one of his sponsors, but otherwise he’s not talking to the press before the game. He does not want to make too much of it when a match against Wales awaits and the title is still on the line.

Which fits. Youngs has never demanded attention, has never been in running for World Rugby’s Player of the Year award, has never been picked as the Player of the Six Nations. He doesn’t have Aaron Smith’s pass or Antoine Dupont’s strength, he wasn’t ever as imposing as Conor Murray or as much of a menace as Faf de Klerk. For long stretches of his career there have been plenty of people who would argue with you whether he was the best scrum-half in the country. Danny Care scored and set up more tries, Richard Wigglesworth was a better kicker. Even now there are plenty of people who wish Eddie Jones would unleash Raffi Quirke or Harry Randall to quicken England up.

Youngs used to be pretty sharp. He may have a steady and deliberate way with a pass, marked by those two or three steps he often takes before he throws them, but he has a turn of pace. He has scored 20 tries for England and the only men who have scored more played in the centres or back three. The best, the most memorable of them, may have been the first, against Australia in 2010, when he beat three men with a dummy and a swerve. That was a demonstration of the raw talent that made him the youngest man to play for Leicester in the league and won him an England call-up soon after. He still has that in him, but you don’t see it quite so often.

It is just one skill, now, in what’s become a complete set. Over the years he has grown into a player who does everything well without doing any one thing spectacularly. This means it’s easy to see what he lacks in comparison to some of his rivals, and easy, too, to overlook how good he is. That’s one reason he gets so much stick. Like Owen Farrell, Youngs cops criticism simply because he’s held on to one of England’s pivotal play-making positions for so long, when there are so many untested players to choose from.

Ben Youngs runs in to score against Tonga last November.
Ben Youngs runs in to score against Tonga last November. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

What he does have, and has always had, is the faith of his coaches. By the end of his run, Leonard, a cult hero and crowd favourite, had become a specialist replacement, the old head on the bench England would bring on to shore up their scrum. Youngs, though, is one of the first names on the teamsheet. He was on the bench against Italy last time out, but it was the first time he had been there in the past two years, when he started every time he was fit to play. He is a key player in Jones’s new England, was a key player in Jones’s old England, just like he was in Stuart Lancaster’s side, and, way back before that, in Martin Johnson’s.

England have, by my count, tried 12 others in his position since he made his debut. There have been Care, Quirke, Randall, Wigglesworth, Willi Heinz for a time, Dan Robson, Ben Spencer, Jack Maunder and Alex Mitchell. Before them were Lee Dickson, Paul Hodgson and Joe Simpson, who used to play ahead of Youngs in the England age groups because they thought he was the better prospect. Simpson, who is at Bath, ended up winning one cap, a reminder of how unpredictable a business it is and all the many things that can go wrong along the way – the injuries, the arguments with coaches, the loss of form, the lack of favour.

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Youngs has been through all that, has suffered with depression, and fatigue after he toured with the Lions in 2013 (he twice decided to sit out later tours to spend time with his family). He was dropped by Johnson, Lancaster and Jones but came back, suffered bad injuries in 2012, 2018 and 2019, then came back from those too. He has been in teams that took some beatings: the defeat by Wales in 2013, by them again, and Australia, in the World Cup in 2015, and the loss to South Africa in the final four years later. And here he is at the end of it, about to have more England caps than any man and, more importantly, a lot of respect and affection from the people he works with. He’s a man coaches trust and one who players like and look up to.

“He is the squadfather,” says Ellis Genge. “If you need some advice, you need some advice.”

Just so long as it’s not about geography, anatomy or stew.

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