There have been some rum old sights and sounds during this Covid-infested rugby year but none stranger than the England team holding back to allow first Ben Youngs and then Jamie George to run out on their own at the start of the game in Rome last night to take the applause of the crowd at the Olympic Stadium.
Except of course there was no crowd to acknowledge the Tigers scrum-half’s 100th cap and the Saracens hooker’s 50th cap. For a few seconds they looked around in slight bemusement and embarrassment and then, in a very underrated English way, congratulated each other and smiled. Well what on earth do you do on these occasions?
While not wanting to diminish George’s splendid half century, Youngs raising his bat for his ton was the main event of the evening and with perfect timing he nipped in for a trademark try after just four minutes, running a clever tracking line to get onto Owen Farrell’s shoulder after the England captain had made a break in midfield.
It was in truth the highlight of a turgid first half for England who adopted a pretty mindless kicking game but Youngs was up for this match and it was his sharply-taken second try early in the first half that finally settled England down and back on course for the bonus point victory they needed.
He rightly earned the MOM award which he celebrated with another smile to the cameras as he sat, socially distanced from his colleague and all alone, in the posh seats at the Olympic Stadium.
Ultimately it proved enough to claim a third title under Eddie Jones.
Youngs has never been the easiest player to pigeon hole. More often than not he is razor sharp, jet heeled, snapping at his pack, into everything and very quick and alert on the break. Everything in fact you would ever want from your scrum-half.
It is elder brother Tom who is built like Dad Nick who looked like a front row forward himself back in the day but actually won six England caps at scrum-half including one famous 15-9 win over New Zealand at Twickenham when his physical toughness came to the fore.
Nick and Tom were virtually clones as players but Ben has always been the speed merchant, the racing thoroughbred grazing in the paddock, as opposed to the industrious shire horse working in the fields at the family farm in Norfolk. A close knit family who wear the Red Rose close to their hearts, Saturday will have been an afternoon of immense pride for all concerned.
In fact as a player Ben has always been much more like another famous product of Gresham’s School, the livewire Ireland and Lions scrum-half Andy Mulligan, another player who lived off his wits, speed of thought and foot.
Over the years Youngs has occasionally attracted criticism and no player should ever be beyond such scrutiny. Sir Clive Woodward after all dropped everybody except Richard Hill during his seven years in charge.
Youngs can occasionally go very quiet and when that happens he tends to overdo the box kick which is not a skill that seems to come naturally.
It can be difficult – unfair even – when you are always expected to be the individual who provides the energy and tempo for a Test team.
That’s everybody’s responsibility, not just the scrum-half. Like all sportsmen you can be prone to what the French cycling fraternity call a jour sans – literally a day without. Without energy, strength, focus, inspiration.
Youngs has undoubtedly endured a few of those but the wonder, over the best part of 11 seasons of full-on, no-holds- barred Test rugby, is surely that they have been so rare.
England and Youngs have ridden a pretty wild roller-coaster during that period. Two flawed and controversial World Cups in 2011 and 2015 followed by an infinitely better if ultimately unsuccessful campaign in Japan a year ago.
During that period there has been just the one Grand Slam – there probably could and should have been more – but Youngs can also look back on two famous wins over the All Blacks which is not something many can boast and no fewer than 12 victories over the auld enemy Australia.
That last statistic might help explain, partially, why Eddie Jones is such a loyal supporter. Very few Poms have ever forced the Aussies to eat so much humble pie. Bravo.
And bear this in mind. For much of his Test career Youngs has had to fight off the very considerable challenge of Danny Care for the starting berth, but fight him off he did, so much so that of Care’s 84 caps only 38 were starts.
Youngs might be the politest and outwardly serene of sportsmen but still waters run deep as he demonstrated back in 2018 when, with a little flare of moody bad temper, he cut short a brief interview on the touchline in South Africa as England trooped off after a fifth defeat on the bounce that year.
He’d had a complete gutful of talking about England losing. It hurt but typically he issued a handsome apology as soon as he had cooled down
Jones says Youngs can go on to win 150 caps and as Jones selects the England team we shouldn’t dismiss that notion although it is getting ever more difficult not to give Dan Robson a run in the side.
At only 31 Youngs is hardly in his dottage and he was in outstanding form on Saturday, so there is unquestionably more to come.
In the short term the 2021 Lions tour will provide the carrot after opting out of the 2017 trip to be with his family when Tom’s wife Tiffany was seriously ill. The Ben Youngs story, you suspect, is a long way from ending.