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June 19 2010 brought a chilly evening to Sydney. Fans of both sides wore beanies as the second Test between England and Australia began tensely. Then, in the 17th minute, with the tourists 6-3 behind, a moment of breathtaking quality illuminated ANZ Stadium.
Tom Croft rose to take a shortened lineout, dropping the ball down to Leicester Tigers colleague Ben Youngs. Standing five metres from the left touchline, England’s then 20-year-old scrum-half threw a dummy and exploded into open space. He sprinted 35 metres, slaloming around Wallaby wing Drew Mitchell. Will Genia retreated desperately, but could only reach Youngs as the try was scored. In a subtle acknowledgement of something truly special, Genia patted his opposite number on the head.
“It just happened instinctively,” Youngs smiles, remembering his third cap at an event for Old Mutual Wealth Kids First Rugby.
“Picking up the ball, running out the way of people trying to tackle you – you’ve done it since you were a kid. I look at things I did then and there was a naivety about them. You could go out there and not worry about the consequences.
“As you get older, it’s not that you worry about the consequences, but you are aware of how important games are. You know the effect that losing can have, and what is at stake. That’s not a daunting thing, but when you’re young you’re just out there playing because you love it: ‘Wow, I’m playing for England; this is amazing.’”
A fine poacher’s finish from Chris Ashton, scrum dominance and Matt Giteau’s inexplicable penalty miss gave the tourists a 21-20 triumph. It was just the third time in 17 attempts that England have beaten the Wallabies in Australia.
Youngs, who subsequently won down under with the 2013 British and Irish Lions, says it has taken time to appreciate the difficulty of achieving success in the Antipodes. Saturday’s first Test at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, a steep-sided cauldron of noise, is vital. Lose, and Eddie Jones’ side faces a sudden-death situation next weekend in Melbourne.
Though Saracens and Exeter Chiefs players were absent, Youngs believes England’s 27-13 defeat of Wales will prove to be precious tune-up time that the Wallabies cannot lean on. Now, they must be bold.
“We have to take the game to Australia,” says Youngs. “We can’t sit back and invite pressure. To nullify their threats, we have to attack.
“[Head coach] Michael Cheika has this brand of rugby that suits their players. They’re not the most physical team, but they are great footballers with real game understanding.
“I see them as a team that is really patient with the ball in attack. They’re happy to go 10, 12 phases with the ball from their own 22.
“As we saw in the World Cup, [Cheika has] moulded a gameplan that suits that. I expect it to be nothing different. They’ll move it about and stick to that brand.”
Jones has selected just two number 9s in his 32-man touring party, keeping faith with Grand Slam pair Youngs and Danny Care. Dan Robson of Wasps pushed hard, but England’s head coach enjoys the status quo.
Two months ago, Jones labelled the manner in which Youngs and Care dovetailed in Paris – the former dropping to the bench before replacing the latter and seeing out a 31-21 win over France – as his proudest moment of the Six Nations. Though flattered, Youngs does not wallow in such words.
“I didn’t do anything different to what anyone else would have done,” he says. “It was about winning the Grand Slam.”
“From the moment we turned up in that tournament, Eddie said we wanted to be the most dominant side in Europe. That was the goal. You get there by being a team. You don’t do that by being an individual – it’s a collective thing.
“Ultimately, we got there, which was great. I’ve come up short a few times, so whatever the role, I was delighted to be part of a squad that made it.”
Innocence and experience
This is not vacuous lip-service. Youngs hails the manner in which Jones has hardened England and “instilled belief”. He is genuinely close to Care. There is “nothing awkward” about their selection tussle.
Perhaps more than any other position, scrumhalves pass through tangible periods of development. They run a pass-kick-snipe rota on each attacking phase and help organise defensive structure, too. And, because they mature on the job, there is no hiding place.
It is easy to forget that Youngs, with 58 England appearances, does not turn 27 until September. He is barely beyond the adolescence of his career. Against Wales, he stuttered in places but sliced through for an excellent solo try. A mixed performance condensed his season. When on song, he fizzes around the fringes and facilitates carriers nicely.
Taking stock of a significant trip, Youngs considers his standing in the England set-up. Given his experience, he is prepared for pastoral responsibilities. However, immersing himself in the infectious enthusiasm of others – youngsters who might remind him of his own innocent exuberance in Australia six years back – is also exciting.
“You can give guys advice, but often people have to learn themselves,” he says. “If I need to support anyone, put an arm around their shoulder, of course I will. If I need to leave them be, I’ll leave them be.
“More than anything, you enjoy watching these youngsters come in and perform so well. For the likes of Jack Clifford and Maro Itoje, it was their first Six Nations. All they’ve known is a Grand Slam. They’ve not suffered those tough defeats.
“They’re a bit fearless, which is great. You can feed off that energy.”
Ben Youngs was speaking on behalf of Old Mutual Wealth, principal partner of England Rugby