Ben Youngs: ‘When we found out the dreadful news, rugby wasn’t important’
Ben Youngs tells Robert Kitson he has no regrets about missing the Lions tour to support his family and sister-in-law, and is more than ready for the two-year journey to the Rugby World Cup
As the national anthems play at Twickenham on Saturday Ben Youngs will gaze up into the stands and experience the purest surge of shared family love. There will be no need to see individual faces to know how the extended Youngs clan is feeling. In the eight months since he last featured in a Test match, the mutual bond has grown tighter than ever.
To call it an emotional period does not begin to cover it. In mid-April England’s scrum-half was on top of his professional world having been selected in the British & Irish Lions squad to tour New Zealand. Inside three weeks he was announcing his withdrawal to spend the summer offering moral support to his brother Tom and his seriously ill wife, Tiffany, whose cancer prognosis had worsened. The closest he came to Lions Test involvement was sitting on a sofa in north Norfolk watching the matches on TV.
At such times the outcome of any game of rugby, high profile or not, becomes all but irrelevant. His sister-in-law is still fighting – “Tiff is going strong at the moment, she’s doing really well, she’s been amazing” – and at no stage has Youngs remotely regretted his decision. If anything, it has been the opposite. “When we found out the dreadful news, rugby, for me at that point, just wasn’t important. It’s what I did but it wasn’t the priority.
“I just thought: ‘I’ve got to be at home, with Tom and Tiff and everyone. My personal ambition isn’t important or relevant right now.’ Once I’d made the decision that was it. The last thing I wanted was just to sit there thinking: ‘I could be out there.’ It would have felt like I’d made the wrong decision. I never felt that way so it shows I made the right one.”
It also drew him even closer to his brother, who has taken the same remarkable journey from the family farm near Aylsham via the minis at Holt RFC to Leicester Tigers, England and the Lions. Different characters they may be – Tom is happiest on a tractor, Ben rather less so – but their shared rugby passion (their father, Nick, also played scrum-half for England) has always united them. “I could sit down with my wife or my cousin and try and explain something rugby-related but they don’t live and breathe it. With Tom, he and I sit there and we know straight away. I can tell how he’s feeling and vice-versa. So much of our life is shared which brings us closer together. To be able to play together and share the highs and lows of the game is so special.”
In addition to being able to spend more time with his wife, Charlotte, and their two young children, three-year-old Boris and 20-month-old Billie, Youngs’ rugby-free summer also yielded a further silver lining for the now the 28-year-old. For the first time since he was 19, he had a proper off-season and felt the huge mental and physical benefits. “I’m not surprised there are starting to be sabbaticals in the southern hemisphere. Whether that will start to happen here I’ve no idea, but I’ve certainly benefitted from it. I feel really refreshed.” Is the difference measurable? “I think it’s more a case of how I feel and, potentially, how I’ll feel at the back end of the season compared to other guys.”
This is significant testimony at a time when, with the exception of Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell, many other Lions are being wheeled out for more punishment. Earlier this season Youngs suggested top players were “at the limit” of what their bodies could withstand physically and there can be a mental toll as well. “If you’re playing rugby all the time you can potentially lose that bit of hunger for it. In previous years – I’ll admit it – there have been seasons when you think: ‘Oh my goodness, it’s here already.’ This time I couldn’t wait to get going. I was desperate to get out there and play again.”
It has also heightened his desire, even after 70 caps, to assist England in conquering the world in Japan in 2019. Having been part of their past two unsuccessful World Cup campaigns, he badly wants to make it third time lucky. “We had a really good team meeting in Portugal last week and agreed what we’d done for the previous two years wouldn’t be good enough. We want to be pioneers in terms of where we’re going and we’ve got two years in which to do it.
“From day one Eddie’s walked in and said: ‘Right, we’re going to win in 2019 and this is how we’re going to do it.’ It’s been great. We’ve never lost sight of our end goal: to win a World Cup and be the number one team in the world. When I look back I don’t want to think: ‘I went to two World Cups and it didn’t quite work out.’ I want to say: ‘I went to three World Cups and one of them was just an unbelievable journey spanning four years of total dedication.’ The clarity and understanding of where we want to get to ... I’ve never seen it on this scale. It’s so exciting.”
In practical terms this has translated into extra speed work with the conditioning expert, Dean Benton, to ensure Youngs and his long-time No9 ally Danny Care reach breakdowns quicker but the regime’s intensity seems to be paying off. “In 2010 we were doing all the right things for that period but you think: ‘Why didn’t we train back then the way we are now?’ The young guys coming in now are absolutely ready for Test rugby and Eddie knows how to get the best out of players. It is quite scary the strength in depth we’ve now got.”
The Australian also knows when to let go. “In the middle of the week he hands the team over to Dylan [Hartley] and the nines and 10s and we drive it. The gameplan is in place but by the back end of the week you almost feel as though it’s your own. I think that’s been empowering people; it makes you want to succeed even more.”
Underpinning it all, as ever, will be the collective support of those close to him – Youngs has 28 first cousins – and the enduring love of a sport which has kept Norfolk’s foremost rugby family going in the darkest of times. “If I wasn’t playing rugby as a profession I’d still love the game ... I’d still be playing locally in north Norfolk and enjoying it.” Wherever his life goes from here, England’s No9 will for ever be proud of where he comes from.