“I tend not to let things build up in my head too much,” says Tom Youngs with a laconic shrug of his considerable shoulders. “It’s very easy to overthink things in life, but getting overly nervous and paranoid has never actually helped me that much.”
Perhaps surprisingly, rugby is not the subject of this profound observation. Rather, our discussion has turned to Youngs’ wedding to long-term sweetheart Tiffany, which took place in July, barely a fortnight after his return from international duty in South Africa. Still, at the start of what seems certain to be a career-defining month, you sense that such a calm philosophy will serve the 25 year-old pretty well.
Having headed on tour this summer without a cap to his name, Youngs learnt a huge deal. Although Stuart Lancaster was always going to opt for the experience of Dylan Hartley and Lee Mears in the Test cauldron, a pair of midweek fixtures presented the Leicester Tiger with invaluable opportunities to showcase his devastating talents in the loose. Some ferocious physicality in attack and defence – natural attributes for a man who resembles an imposing barrel of muscle weighing 102 kilograms – impressed onlookers immensely.
More significant though, as Youngs admits, was the chance to work alongside specialist throwing coach Simon Hardy and become accustomed to England’s systems. A combination of injuries to Hartley and Rob Webber, Mears’ retirement and continued domestic excellence at Welford Road means the former centre is currently this country’s number one hooker. And a pivotal autumn, beginning with an imminent step into the unknown against Fiji at Twickenham on Saturday, has arrived.
“Being out in South Africa was a massive help with regard to now,” Youngs continues, a strikingly laid-back demeanour failing to mask ardent enthusiasm. “Simon was fantastic and I am more relaxed because I know the guys, the coaching staff and the plan of attack really well. That is so important because we have only had the last two weeks to prepare for four Test matches.
“Like any uncapped player, I don’t know exactly what to expect. I can ask guys as many questions as I want, but I won’t know for sure until I am there. Games like Toulouse away in the Heineken Cup [last month] are good for a guide, but I imagine the atmosphere is going to be different altogether.
“I have sat in the crowd a few times for Test matches and that is loud enough itself. When you are out there on the middle of the pitch and everyone is shouting directly towards you, it must be electric. People say you can’t even hear each other – I bet that is incredible.
“Not many people get to play for their country and I want to take in the whole occasion, from the buzz of the warm-up to the first lineout to the crowd going mad when we score a try.”
Never forgetting to credit family, colleagues and coaches, Youngs speaks with genuine pride about his progress at club level since September. Seven consecutive league starts as well as two more in Europe – comprehensively usurping the far more gnarled George Chuter in the process – suggests he is justified. However, a rocketing reputation has brought some inconvenience. Intense examination of his set-piece skills has been one constant nag and, during the first half of Leicester’s 27-21 loss to Gloucester, the hecklers had a field day as Youngs’ radar went awry for four misplaced throws.
Thankfully for Lancaster, Geoff Parling, the stat-loving lock who corrected possible catastrophe at Kingsholm, will be on hand to provide support at HQ too. Likewise, Leicester chum Dan Cole is set to take the tighthead berth at the rookie’s right-hand side. Aware that such familiarity of those key combinations can dispel the cynics, Youngs is bursting to banish them for good. Besides, potential tussles with Wallaby Stephen Moore and New Zealand’s Keven Mealamu – numbering a hefty 172 Test appearances between them – are on the horizon. There is no time for self-doubt.
“I do get a bit bored of people asking about my throwing but that is one of those things,” smiles Youngs. “Scrutiny is obviously on me even more because I have moved to hooker. Everybody immediately just said ‘Ah, he can’t throw’.
“If you look at the percentages over the season, it isn’t half as bad as some people would like to make out [Tigers have won around 84% of lineouts while Youngs has been on the pitch]. You can lose a lineout for loads of reasons – because the lifts aren’t timed right or someone might not hear the call. The thrower always gets blamed for that and I feel I might attract criticism more than most. That is just something I have to deal with.
“As someone who has changed position, I need to be the best of the best to get people off my back. That is something that doesn’t annoy me – it actually inspires me. I am keen to see where I am at in comparison to the best hookers in the world and am confident of working alongside Geoff to make the right calls.”
For all hopeful of England retaining a crucial place inside the IRB rankings top four, these words are encouraging. Youngs is evidently intent on making life terribly uncomfortable for more decorated opponents. Should the situation arise on December 1, then, will his uncompromising approach extend to mimicking mentor Richard Cockerill with a manic reaction to the All Blacks haka? Do not count on it.
“No, no, no,” Youngs chuckles, recalling his director of rugby eye-balling opposite number Norm Hewitt back in 1997. “I’ve had a laugh about that but it’s not something I’m going to do. I absolutely loved seeing Cockers doing that, though. I thought it was brilliant. He’ll always be remembered for it but I’ll leave that to him.”
Once again, Youngs prefers composure to consternation. Quite right, too. Having found the most unconventional route to the cusp of an England cap, he will surely find his own ways to be remembered for a while to come.
Tom Youngs was speaking at the launch of O2 Inside Line, the weekly behind the scenes show from inside the England camp. For the latest episode and to receive email alerts for each show, visit www.O2InsideLine.com
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images