Tom Youngs is on the verge of making his test debut after just 6 Premiership starts in the position. That is a phenomenal rise for the son of an England cap, his farther Nick, and the elder brother of another, Ben (you’ve probably heard of him he’s quite good).
So what is all the fuss about?
As befits the kind of player who played age group international rugby in the centre he has slick passing skills and the rugby brain to know when to use them. Witness his cracking off load in the build up to Thomas Waldrom’s try on the opening day against London Welsh. Tigers have also managed to adapt their tactics to his unique skill set by often having him as first receiver; confident in his ability to spin the ball wide to Toby Flood or Anthony Allen to use an overlap or charge up the middle if nothing is on.
Richard Cockerill says in his book “raw aggression is vital in front five players” and “its 80% attitude and desire against 20% technique”. Youngs certainly has that raw aggression and desire, 2 seasons learning his trade in the championship with Nottingham, at a completely new and sometimes baffling position, are evidence of the desire to make it in the game. And aggression is the whole reason he moved to the front row in the first place. The legend has it that a sin binning on October 10th 2008 whilst playing for the second team against Saracens, and captaining the side to boot, prompted Heyneke Meyer to suggest the position switch. His crime? Scrapping with a Sarries prop.
But we can’t just forget that 20 technical percent. And neither does Youngs. His scrummaging simply is to the standard Tigers desire, and given that this is a club where Julian White once roamed the open pasture that is some compliment. It easily makes his scrum work international standard and a real strength. Apparently on age group duty, as a centre remember, he used to practice scrummaging against a young Dan Cole, that’s what I call foresight. His lineout work has come on leaps and bounds since I first saw him play in the LV cup 3 seasons ago and whilst still the chink in his armour it is merely a scratch on an otherwise perfectly polished skill set. Of course it is difficult to separate system errors which aren’t his fault from simple miss-throws which are, but that is a challenge he’ll face for England too.
In an age where hooking is undergoing a retro conversion back to the link men and the smaller mobile hookers, like Peter Wheeler was and Schalk Brits is, Youngs is perfectly adapted to this type of game. He played a season of 7s for England in the IRB World Series just 6 months before the Meyer inspired switch to the smaller spaces of the front row and whilst bulkier now he still shows glimpses of the player lean enough to be a sevens specialist.
Whilst Youngs might be startlingly inexperienced at first glance, 6 Premiership starts and 2 Heineken Cup starts, he actually carriers the experience that a 25 more or less should. He made his Leicester debut at 19 and has featured in 39 games for Leicester (including 10 at centre) and whilst on loan at Nottingham he made 40 appearances. He’s played for England at every age group, he’s played for England 7s in the IRB World Series and he’s played for England’s midweek side this summer. That is substantially more experience than Manu Tuilagi had on debut and more than enough to dispel any thoughts that he isn’t ready for international rugby.
So what’s the fuss about? Put simply he is the kind of dynamic and aggressive hooker that English rugby is failing to produce in enough numbers. He’s overcome the kind of setbacks that breed huge mental toughness and is putting in displays that remind this writer at least of the cocky aggressive nuggety hooker that he first watched from the Crumbie terrace: Richard Cockerill. No wonder he’s starting every week!