Ben Youngs is sitting beside a log fire, flicking through old photographs. There are black and white pictures from his childhood on the family farm, baby-faced snaps from the rugby pitch and a series of glossy shots from his England career. Some evoke better memories than others.
Back at home, the only rugby print Youngs keeps is one walking around Twickenham with his two children, Boris and Billie. He prefers to fill his walls with water-coloured memories from his childhood on the north Norfolk coast.
Like most professional athletes, Youngs does not spend too much time looking back. Professional rugby players are tuned to only look forwards but, on the verge of eclipsing Jason Leonard as England’s most capped player of all time, he allows himself a moment to reflect on his journey towards 115 caps.
Ben Youngs is on the verge of eclipsing Jason Leonard as England’s most capped player ever
‘Holt Rugby Club,’ he says, picking up a photograph of a small, fluffy-haired youngster in black kit. ‘That’s where it all started. Every Sunday with all my cousins, playing about five games and then having a hot dog while my aunties and uncles had beers in the club house.
‘That rugby ball is half the size of me! I was always quite small for my age but I played a year up at Holt. I always had a passion for rugby. At school I was dyslexic, so the rugby pitch was a safe place for me. I tried hard at school but the rugby pitch was where I felt comfortable.
‘My grandfather built us some rugby posts with old irrigation pipes from the farm one Christmas, so I was always out there pretending to score tries. Just don’t kick the sugar beet or you’ll break your foot! I had an awesome childhood. They are great memories.’
The scrum-half is approaching 115 caps having first made his England debut back in 2010
A few years later, at the age of 17, Youngs became the youngest ever player to represent Leicester Tigers in the Premiership. A live wire scrum-half who would go on to break bigger and better records. He made his England debut against Scotland in 2010 and has since played under three England coaches: Martin Johnson, Stuart Lancaster and Eddie Jones.
‘Jonno gave me my first shot and you never forget that,’ he says, picking out a picture alongside the former captain. ‘He made me feel valued and gave me my debut at Murrayfield…replacing Ugo Monye on the wing!
‘The game has evolved loads since then. It’s become so much harder to break teams down so I’ve had to adapt my game. I’ve always really enjoyed the running game but defences are tougher today and there’s so much more tactical nous around things like kicking.
Youngs said his brother, Tom, making his debut ‘will forever be of my fondest memories’
‘When you look back, people often judge that Jonno era on the 2011 World Cup. Everyone remembers the incidents off the field. That ferry incident with Manu Tuilagi would never happen now. Times have changed — social media, camera phones — and the profile of the game is so much bigger. Yeah, that World Cup didn’t go how we hoped but we had some good wins under Jonno. We won the Six Nations and beat Australia in Sydney. He really looked after me as a youngster and had a big impact on my career.’
A few weeks after England’s ill-fated World Cup campaign, Johnson resigned. He was replaced by Stuart Lancaster — and shortly after Youngs was joined in the England team by his big brother, Tom. An abrasive hooker, Tom won 28 caps for England and is on indefinite leave in Norfolk to care for his wife, Tiffany.
Picking up a photograph embracing his brother during the national anthem, he says: ‘Tom’s debut against Fiji… this will forever be of my fondest memories. There’s not many siblings who can sit down and relate to each other in absolutely everything they’ve done. A lot of siblings get to a certain age where they go to university, get a job and naturally move apart. I’ve seen Tom almost every day of my life. For every high I’ve had, Tom’s been by my side. Our highest highs have been together and our lowest lows have been together. It’s unique.
He said For every high I’ve had, Tom’s been by my side’ and that their relationship was ‘unique’
‘We’re best mates. Tiff and Tom are facing adversity at the moment. The courage they’re showing gives me motivation and inspires me to roll up my sleeves and find more. I know that at the weekend, for 80 minutes, I have an opportunity to bring some joy to my family. It gives me a purpose.’
The siblings last played together for England at the 2015 World Cup. One of the nation’s great sporting disappointments. England crashed out in the group stages and missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to inspire a generation by lifting the Webb Ellis Cup on home soil.
‘I’m pleased there are no photos here of that Wales game!’ he jokes. ‘From the moment Stuart came in, everything was geared towards that World Cup. A huge amount of work had gone in over three years. To go out in the manner we did, losing control of the Wales game, made for a really tough period. Coming home after that was difficult. Really difficult. Wherever you went, you felt like you’d let people down.
Youngs said crashing out of the 2015 World Cup was ‘the toughest time in my career’
‘You couldn’t escape it. It was the toughest time in my career, without a doubt. You question everything. Constantly. There’s no day where you think, “OK, it’s time to move on”.’
At least, not until Eddie Jones arrived. The Australian charged in to provide English rugby with the lightning bolt that it badly needed at the time. Cut from a different cloth to his mild-mannered predecessor, Jones began a rebuild with Youngs at the heart of it. They embarked on a remarkable 18-game unbeaten run, unleashing the heartbreak of 2015 on whoever stood in their path.
‘You can always rely on Coley!’ he laughs, picking out a photograph of Dan Cole pouring a bottle of champagne over his head to celebrate the 2016 Six Nations Grand Slam. ‘Eddie came in and it felt like a line had been drawn in the sand. We arrived at Pennyhill Park and there was a message asking for each of us to go in for a catch up with Eddie. I knocked on the door and it was: “Benny, how are ya, nice to meet ya”. Everything was going nicely and then he tells me I need to lose some weight, pulls out a bag of sweets and asks if I want them. I said, “No thanks” and he says “That’s a great start”. He was right. I got a plan with the strength and conditioning team and away we went. I feel better now as a 32-year-old than I have in my whole career.
‘Eddie gave us a new direction, a new philosophy and assured us that we weren’t bad players because of what happened at the World Cup. He gave us confidence. We felt backed as a team and individuals. We knew where we were going and we knew how we were going to do it.
‘There was a bit of patching up the wounds and then we went on an amazing 18-game run and won the Grand Slam. We won 3-0 in Australia in 2016 and beat South Africa in Cape Town. Bar playing alongside my brother, the majority of my fondest memories have all been under Eddie.’
Over the years, Youngs withstood the test of time. He avoided injury and repeatedly silenced his critics. Moving towards the 2019 World Cup, there are two images that capture his attention. The first is the win over New Zealand in the semi-final. Youngs scored a try that was disallowed, yet the brilliant snapshot of his celebrations were still framed in his father’s office.
‘The try that never was!’ laughs Youngs, who is speaking in his role as an ambassador for Dove Men+Care. ‘Before that game, Eddie went out and bought a samurai sword. He was waving it around in this meeting and I was thinking, “Where is this heading?” Eventually he sliced up a Kiwi fruit! That game was one of the best of my career. There aren’t many games that have flowed that well as a team.’
He said the ‘fire’s still burning’ and he has set his sights on reaching the 2023 World Cup
The image from seven days later paints a stark contrast: walking off the pitch in blood-stained white jerseys, having been butchered by South Africa in the final.
‘What a difference a week makes. It was almost like we’d saved our worse ’til last. In sport, there’s no entitlement and no guarantees. I wouldn’t have done anything differently during the week but it just didn’t happen. I still think about that game now. The final was heartbreaking but, after difficult times in 2011 and 2015, that was a World Cup I genuinely loved. I’d do it all again even if I knew the outcome was the same.’ Since then, Youngs has continued to remain a part of Jones’ plans, holding off the next generation of contenders such as Ben Spencer and Dan Robson. He clocked up his 100th cap in 2020 and, with Harry Randall and Raffi Quirke snapping at his heels, he finds himself on the brink of more history against Wales on Saturday.
‘It’ll be nice if it happens at Twickenham because people from Norfolk get nosebleeds if they leave the country! If it comes, it’ll be a reflection of the people who have made me who I am.
‘I suppose some of it’s luck. Courtney Lawes made his debut two weeks before me but I’ve had fewer injuries than he has. I’m not motivated by the caps record or getting to the World Cup — although I want to make 2023. The fire’s still burning and I’m motivated by the fact I feel there’s more to come.
‘I’m content with where I am. I don’t feel like I have to prove people wrong. My motivation comes from within, to do it for myself and to make my family proud.’
And when the record comes, it will provide his family with another image to cherish.
Ben Youngs is a Dove Men+Care ambassador. For more, follow DoveMenUK Twitter or @DoveMenCare on Instagram.