Ben Youngs’ involvement in Rugby World Cup 2019 took him back to Japan in an England jersey for the first time since he marked himself down as an international scrum-half in waiting at the second World Rugby U20 Championship.
Already earning rave reviews for his impact at club side Leicester, Youngs travelled to the Far East for World Rugby U20 Championship 2009 as England’s first-choice nine, having been understudy to Joe Simpson at the inaugural tournament.
Youngs had gained invaluable playing experience in Wales despite his limited game time, coming up against two of the best scrum-halves to have ever played the game in the modern era in Rugby World Cup winner Aaron Smith and Wallabies legend Will Genia.
But it was 12 months on, in Japan, when he really came to the fore, starting in the semi-final win over South Africa and then the defeat to New Zealand in the title decider – England’s second in as many years – at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo.
Even though he missed out on a winner’s medal in each of his two tournament appearances, Youngs looks back positively on the experience.
“At that age, any game is vital and then you put it into a tournament and what that is like, and you’re playing against the best guys in each country at that age group, it’s a great opportunity,” acknowledged Youngs, who recently signed a new long-term deal that keeps him at Leicester for the foreseeable future.
“The first time I played, we were based in Newport, and then in the second year, we went to Japan. To do that as a 20-year-old, and spend three weeks in Tokyo, was an amazing experience.
“I was never fortunate enough to win it, but I had a great time and a lot of the guys from my age group – I played with Courtney (Lawes) – are still there (with England) now.”
Roughly one-in-three of the initial class of 2008 went on to be capped by England, while the following year, the likes of Joe Marler, Ben Moon and Jamie George gave the selectors a fair idea of the front-row riches they had in reserve.
Of the lot though, Youngs has made the most international appearances – 101, counting his two Lions caps in Australia in 2013 – with his century for England tantalisingly close.
Worldwide, the only U20 Championship graduates with more caps to their name are the aforementioned Genia (110) and New Zealand's Sam Whitelock (117).
Youngs’ desire to play at the highest level, and potentially become the most-capped U20 Championship graduate of all-time, still burns just as brightly as when he made his senior England debut against Scotland at Murrayfield in March 2010, less than a year after his second and final outing in age-grade rugby’s marquee event.
“In a good place”
“I’ve still absolutely got the ambition to play for England. Two things either give up – your body or your mind in rugby – and right now neither of them are giving up so I feel in a good place moving forward,” said Youngs.
Like a cricketer stuck on 99 runs, no international rugby player would be happy to fall one short of the magical three-figure cap mark, and Youngs, aged 30, is no different.
“That much has happened since that Wales game, I haven’t really thought about it,” he said, when asked about the prospect of bringing up his ‘ton’.
“Hopefully, there is a game at some point, which would be nice. To be honest with you, we don’t know who we are playing in the Premiership on the 15th August yet, let alone who we’re playing in the autumn. We’ll just have to wait and see.”