When a young Harry Ellis and that wily old campaigner, Matt Dawson, were competing for the England scrum half berth some years ago, I recall one commentator coming down in favour of Dawson. His reasoning? Whilst Ellis had the faster car, Dawson knew the short cuts. Fast forward to Autumn 2010 and a similar debate about the number nine shirt looks unlikely. England may just have unearthed a new rugby star.
England have a fine group of young bolters to lead them into the Rugby World Cup next year. Tight head props peak in their late twenties but the world is already taking notice of the colossus that is Dan Cole at just 23. If Courtney Lawes can add to his remarkable athleticism, consistency and the hard edge that all second rows require, he too could become world class. As could the dazzling Northampton pair of Chris Ashton and Ben Foden. And, he may already be a British Lion, but Tom Croft remains a young man and has the potential to be a leading flanker in world rugby.
But it is Leicester Tiger, Ben Youngs, who may be the best of the lot. Indeed, whisper it quietly, but at 21 years of age he may just be at the start of a journey to becoming the best number nine on the planet. This November, Youngs will have his work cut out to vindicate such a statement.
All Black, Jimmy Cowan, may be up first, hardly the smoothest scrum half but tough and uncompromising. Then, Will Genia, the brilliant Australian number nine will try and upset Youngs’ rhythm. It is arguably Genia, at just 22 himself, who is likely to be Youngs’ challenger as the world’s best in the next five years. It is unfortunate that Fourie du Preez will be missing as, when fit and in form, he is the current benchmark. Indeed Youngs could do a lot worse than watch the videos of du Preez from 2007 and 2008 to watch a scrum half demonstrating imperious game management.
As for Youngs, whose family has rugby running through its veins, his potential is extraordinary. For a start he is lightning quick. Not quick like scrum halves are quick but with the sort of explosive finishing pace only wingers normally possess. Just ask the Wasps and Scarlets defences who have seen the back of him as he disappeared through gaps this season. His pass is sharp and accurate, his box kicking is clever and, possessing what appears to be confident personality, he is not shy of bossing his pack like all good number nines should.
So far so good but surely Danny Care is quick with a tidy pass? What Youngs appears to have though is that X-factor which no one can coach. Pure instinct and the ability to see the picture unfold in front of him before the other players do.
You only have to watch Thomas Waldrom’s try for the Tigers against Scarlets in the recent Heineken Cup match for evidence. Surrounded by players, Youngs made a small break, anticipated Waldrom was in support running into the gap and executed with the subtlest of dummies and perfectly timed offload. It looked a simple try but that is what good players do. Make things look simple.
At only 21, no one should presume that Youngs is the finished article. And don’t be surprised if Australia watch those sniping runs around the fringe much more closely than they did in the summer. But make no mistake, whilst Youngs’ car is seriously fast, it is starting to look like he may know the short cuts too.
By Lee Bagshaw