THERE ARE FEW IN THE ENGLAND CAMP WHO’RE MORE AFFABLE OR MORE ENGAGING THAN BEN YOUNGS. AS HE PREPARES – YET AGAIN – TO LACE UP HIS BOOTS AGAINST AUSTRALIA, HE TALKS COUSINS, CHOCOLATES AND A FUTURE ROLE AS JAMES BOND.
His middle name’s Ryder (as in Cup), his nickname’s Lenny (as in Bruce) and he shares a birthday (September 5th) with Batman (Michael Keaton) and James Bond (George Lazenby.) Hey, now, there’s a thought: suave, athletic, good teeth, sharp in a dinner jacket. Why not?
‘James Bond?’ he says, brightening considerably. ‘D’you reckon? Look, if they want to give me a deal and let me have a crack at it, let’s talk. Who was the chap who did one Bond film and then left? Was that George Lazenby? The one I share a birthday with? Well there you are then, maybe there’s hope.’
Given how indecently eager he seems to be, it seems churlish to point out the obvious drawbacks; the vodka Martinis, the Aston Martins, the gyrocopters, the bespoke tuxedos, the endless games of baccarat and all those famously foxy ladies in sultry evening gowns smooching you in exotic locations. He considers all this very briefly. ‘No, that’d be all right,’ he says. ‘I think I’d cope.‘
And you sense he probably would. Indeed perhaps 009 – along with one or two others in the England set up – might think of bearding Blofeld and his Persian pussy in the bowels of an extinct volcano as a relaxation, given the constant spectre of Eddie Jones for whom – seemingly – The World Is Not Enough.
‘When he first arrived we all had to go in to see him one-on-one,’ says Youngs, ‘so I thought, right, I’ll book early because I’ve not met the bloke before. So we’re in the meeting and it started off pretty well and I thought, this is going okay, and I was getting the feeling he might actually like me and then, suddenly, he chucks a bag of sweets on the table and asks me if I want one, which was his way of saying, stop eating these and lose a few kilos. And in fairness since then I don’t think I’ve touched a single ‘Malteser’, although I might steal a couple if we go to the cinema with the lads and you reach across and sneak one. But not many.’
Chocolate has long been a fabled weakness; so too unconscious witticisms, collated – somewhat unkindly – by George Chuter and Tom Croft at @stuffbensaid. ‘I want to learn how to speak sign language,’ was one alleged offering along with, ‘I think we should dress up in chinos, shirts and wafers’ ahead of a group night out. It’s a measure of how hail-fellow-well-met Ben Youngs is that he’s not only tolerated being put in the stocks by his best mates but allowed one of them, the treacherous Tom Croft, to marry one of his many country cousins.
‘I think I’ve got twenty-eight cousins,’ he says. ‘Harriet’s married to Crofty and Isobel to Coley.’ He pauses a second, perhaps to drink in the thought that he’s – dimly – related to a tight-head prop. ‘In Crofty’s case, him being the loner he is, he had nothing to do one New Year’s Eve so we invited him to a family party and he ended up marrying Harriet,’ says Ben. ‘And I get no percentage and no cut. Instead we now get Crofty at all our family gatherings, as usual, bringing nothing but himself.’
Ben Youngs’ story is rooted in Norfolk – Nelson’s County where the landscape is nine-tenths sky – a story that’s always been a family affair. Indeed there are few finer families in rugby; a farmer father who also played scrum-half for England, a mother nicknamed ‘Trot’ who nobly comes to the boys’ games and chews her knuckles and a much-loved grandfather who first knocked up some rugby posts in a back field with some old irrigation pipes. There was tots rugby in Holt, schools rugby at Gresham’s, England age groups, Leicester Tigers, full-fat England and the Lions, all alongside brother, Tom; foursquare, fabulous in a pair of wellies but currently out of favour with Eddie Jones.
‘I do miss him here, of course I do,’ says Youngs the Younger, ’because to do what we do and to share all those memories has been fantastic so, naturally, I miss him not being here and I know he’s doing everything in his power to try to get back in.’
As much as Ben’s a brother’s boy – ‘who’s the favourite son?’ you ask, ‘I am,‘ he says, faster than a ricochet – the ‘bromance’ at the England HQ amid the brooding conifers of deepest Surrey is with George Ford. On the face of it they’re unlikely lads – flat-voweled Oldham and flat-fenned Norfolk – but the two of them are not just halvies but bezzies and roomies.
‘It’s an up/down room so he’s up and I’m down,’ says Ben. ‘We have a bit of a chat and then he goes off to his cave upstairs. I think he just studies clips of backs’ moves and how to unlock defences and speaks to his dad a lot. I’m not really invited up there. He’s too busy analysing clips of rugby.’
‘I suppose we just get on. We have done since he was at Leicester. The only time he gets tetchy is when he has to walk through all my mess to get out of the door. I’m not that bad but I’m not much of a one for tidying up – you know, you drop your kit off, chuck your stuff on the floor and then off to your next meeting or whatever – but he has to have everything neat, you know, his boots are all in a line and his shirts are all hung up and if anything’s slightly creased or whatever they’re in the wash again. Plus he has loads of cosmetics, way more than me. How do you think his hair’s always on point?’
Everyone in Eddie’s England is on point this weekend as Australia lusts for vengeance and no one on the white team has waltzed with Matilda more often than Ben Youngs – it’s a round dozen caps against the Wallabies if you add in the Lions – or as memorably as in 2010 when he made his first start for England in Sydney and – almost snake-hipped – rooted Drew Mitchell to the spot for a remarkable solo try.
And then, of course, there was that autumn’s game at Twickenham when he and Courtney Lawes fashioned an open goal for Chris Ashton from underneath the England posts; indeed, the best gauge of how good Ben Youngs was that day was that Ashton scored both England tries –one of which, as mentioned, was seventy-five yards long – yet it was Youngs – quite rightly – who was Man of the Match.
‘Without doubt, some of my fondest memories of wearing an England shirt are from playing Australia,’ he says. ‘It’s one I always look forward to; very competitive nation, the way they play the game, unstructured, always looking to attack. They’re the best thinkers around in terms of moves and patterns. They hit up in the midfield and then around the corner and you’re thinking why’s that, what are they doing? Well, it’s because on the third phase they’re trying to isolate someone and get a match-up and they’re very clever in how they do that. It’s always the game the players enjoy the most.’
If there’s one gripe to be had with the genial Ben Youngs, it’s his cloth ear for music. His debut song – when you win your first England cap, tradition obliges you to stand at the front of the bus and serenade the team on the way back to the hotel – was ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’, the measure of his charm being that he actually thought the rest of the team would join in. Not surprisingly he was taunted with banana skins and gum-shields and, it seems, he still hasn’t wised up.
‘Yeah, I quite like Mumford and Sons,’ he says, proof positive that you can take the boy out of the farm but not the farm out of the boy, ‘but I know they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. Mind you, you should hear some of the stuff that gets played in our changing room these days. Ridiculous. I know the forwards have to get themselves up to stick their heads in rucks and whatnot but what’s wrong with some of the old stuff, you know, stuff like ’Build Me Up Buttercup’; yeah, I wouldn’t mind that. Stick it over the tannoy at Twickenham one day when we run out.’
If you were in any doubt that Ben Young’s is the Labrador of English rugby, there’s your proof. Certainly, on reflection, you’d be hard-pressed to argue he’s sufficiently moody or menacing to complement Monty Norman’s gun-barrel, surf-rock riff, given it was only thirteen hundred words ago we had him penciled in as the next James Bond. How about Joey Tribbiani in a future remake of ‘Friends’? Hey, now you’re talking.
02 DECEMBER 2016