- Leicester Tiger reaping the benefits of bold positional switch
- I had to find my own way, but I stuck at it and slowly got better – Youngs
When he first gave it a try, he could not throw for more than 12 minutes without his back cramping up and on one dark day, he even lobbed a lineout ball straight into the opposition scrum half’s hands.
But Tom Youngs, who made his first start in an England shirt this week against a South African Barbarians side, has now reached a defining waypoint in what is a remarkable rugby journey. He has gone from a cannonball centre for the Leicester Tigers to a bruising international hooker and fully paid-up member of the throw-in club.
The process of transforming Ben Youngs’ big brother into a No.2 was, fittingly, initiated by current Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer in the 2006/07 season and RFU.com chatted to Youngs senior on England’s tour to South Africa to find out how it happened.
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Back in 2006, Meyer approached Tom after a second team game and suggested a switch to the front row; after some discussion with his family – his father is a former England international scrum half – the 25-year-old jumped at the chance to test himself in the combative environment of the front row.
“I knew straightaway it was something I wanted to do,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in the physicality of the game and in the scrums it’s been Coley [England and Leicester Tigers tighthead Dan Cole] in there all the time when we were younger.
“I didn’t play for about three months, I went into the gym and bulked up a bit and worked on my fitness as you need a different kind of engine. Then I was meant to go on loan to North Walsham, my local rugby club, just to start off at a very low level, but Nottingham were short of hookers, so I got called in there.”
Though built like the proverbial out-house, Youngs was certainly thrown in at the deep end. But as anyone who has seen him on a rugby field will testify, he’s got the fight to keep his head above choppy water.
Hard work won the lottery
As RFU specialist hooking coach Simon Hardy testifies, Youngs, of Norfolk farming stock, had the immense strength to make himself a natural scrummager and relishes being in the heat of the battle. But having the rhythm, accuracy and dexterity required to hit his jumpers at the line out, that was a different matter.
Youngs picks up the story: “The throwing was horrendous, I was terrible and it was a lottery at times. It took a lot of hard work and a long time. Not only to get the technique, but to get my own personal technique, you watch other people throwing and that would not necessarily suit me.
“I had to find my own way and I always tell the story of the time I threw the ball and it landed in the opposition scrum half’s hands. But I stuck at it and it slowly got better.
Photo: Getty Images
“It gets better quickly at the beginning, then it slows right down as you look for that two to five per cent and you have to work that much harder to get it. Mentally it’s a big thing too, going through your routine before you throw on big occasions.”
Hardy, a former Saracens and London Wasps hooker, has been working with Youngs for more than two years on weekly throwing sessions and says his pupil has endured some difficult moments to develop the physiology and mentality required.
Youngs first had to work hard on his flexibility, but in parallel, the touchline can be a lonely place in a team game and keeping calm when you are just feet from the crowd is a singular challenge, as Hardy explained.
“I guess it took him 18 months to get the basics of throwing, he was incredibly inflexible when we started and there’s a fitness guy at Leicester Tigers called Crippsy [Dave Cripps] who I spent a lot of time with, getting Tom to get more flexible in his shoulders,” he said.
“Once that happened he had to learn how to develop his hands, but at his initial sessions he could not throw for more than 12 minutes without fatigue setting into his trapezius and we had to stop.
“We started off purely on the techniques of throwing, then we developed that to the physical aspects and his final finishing school stage is the emotional and psychological sides.
“So, how will he deal with the emotional side of pressure, in terms of standing in front of 75,000 people against Saracens at Wembley and then the psychological aspects of visualisation of throws.”
More Tests ahead
Youngs made his first senior start for England in the 57-31 midweek victory over the South Africa Northern Barbarians, displaying the solidity in the line out and power in the loose which led Hardy to believe he can go all the way and join his brother in the Test team.
The hooker admits his development has been racked with troubling times, but you sense that overcoming those obstacles has made him tougher on the pitch and more relaxed off it.
He added: “There have been some very darks days but in the back of your head you know it is for a good reason, you know you’ve got to go out and do it. But it’s helped me a lot, going through those makes you a better player and a better person.”
And the final note of congratulation: an e-mail to Youngs from the man who started it, Heyneke Meyer, when he was selected for England’s tour. It wished him every success in the future, but given Lancaster’s assertion that “when Youngs hits rucks, they stay hit and when he carries, he carries hard”, you would presume the one time mentor hopes that Test bow doesn’t arrive before England leave South Africa this summer.