Ben Youngs only turned 27 on Monday and yet he already has the experience of a veteran. And all of those years at the top are starting to bear fruit in pressure situations.
Leicester could have started the season a little smoother than having to turn over a 31-7 deficit on a Friday night against Gloucester at Kingsholm, but where’s the fun in that?
Youngs is the first to admit that Leicester made life difficult for themselves with a pair of interception scores combined with over-eagerness in the defence. The execution after going 24 points down to then win 38-31 was quite something – the result of digging deep in pre-season working on similar scenarios. Winning with the final play and quietening the famous Shed seemed to make the struggle all worthwhile.
“We showed real resilience and character to come back into the game. It’s a good example of what can happen when we stick to our processes and what we have talked about during the week and we get it right. We were really disappointed about the first 40-50 minutes, but it was nice to rectify it and escape with the result,” Youngs told Planet Rugby.
“The message was about controlling the ball and sticking to the game-plan that we had spoken about in the week leading up to the game. When we protected the pill and went through phases we caused them problems and managed to crack them.
“It was a great way to start off the new Aviva Premiership season but we’d rather not have a close match like that again.
“The Shed were a little bit quiet which is quite nice, because you get a fair amount of stick.”
Leicester felt like a new side last season with Aaron Mauger instilled as head coach, bringing with him from the Crusaders an attacking blueprint that meant while the Tigers would never shy away from their roots of possessing a powerful pack, they now had the ability to do far more with the ball in hand.
New signings last season now understand the club better. And the new recruits for this season, headlined by JP Pietersen and Matt Toomua, look set to take the club up a level.
Combine those factors with an expansive style of play that suits the sniping runs of Youngs perfectly, and it’s obvious why Leicester are being considered as a threat again.
Youngs explains: “JP has come in and been absolutely brilliant, he’s settled in straight away. Matty Toomua will turn up after the Rugby Championship and Luke Hamilton has been great in the back row. But the other thing is that guys like Lachlan McCaffrey, Brendan O’Connor, Mike Fitzgerald, Greg Bateman, who all came in last year, are a lot more at home now and comfortable in the environment, and know what the culture here is all about.
“We made a huge step last year in the way we play the game, with a lot more attacking rugby, and I feel we have taken it on another step this year. Being a year in [under Mauger’s system], the guys understand what he wants a lot more than this time last year.
“He at the same time understands the Aviva Premiership better as a coach – of course he played in it previously, but he’s a lot more wiser about when you go up to your Newcastles or down to Bristol how hard these teams are to beat, regardless of table position or whether you are home or away.”
“Of course you want to win, and ultimately that is what the game is about, but at the same time you want to play an exciting style and to be excited when you take the field, because of the fact that you’re playing this brand of rugby where you go at teams and try and break them down with ball in hand rather than bludgeoning them or through a kicking game. Now we are doing it with the ball in hand.
“Being a nine, all I want to do is attack, to try and take people on and make space for others. The system here now really allows me to express myself in that way.”
Phase one of the Mauger revolution for many could be considered a success, reaching the final four in the Aviva Premiership and Europe with Leicester losing to the future English and French champions (Racing 92) respectively.
However for a club like Leicester with all those Aviva Premiership titles and two European crowns to their name, only reaching the semi-finals will never been enough. Youngs wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Last year we were very convincingly beaten by Saracens and that was a reflection of where we were at as a team,” Youngs adds.
“Now with Manu back fit, JP and Toomua coming in, hopefully this year we can make the top two for a home semi-final and if we go on to make the final then that is great. The club really want to be a part of winning silverware again.
“We’re not happy with just those semi-finals, and that is what helps the club strive to get better. We learned a lot as a squad and it bodes well for this season.
“If you are part of a club that finishes in the top four and everyone is surprised, that isn’t what any of us really want to be about. Being disappointed to only make a semi-final is a club I want to be a part of.”
Further good form with Leicester is required for Youngs to not only keep his spot with England, but to also keep him fresh in Warren Gatland’s thoughts through the months of debate ahead regarding who will be selected to tour New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions.
Youngs was a tourist in 2013, starting in the second Test having come off the bench first time around, before missing out entirely on the 23 in the decider; “I did the hat-trick, the wrong way round though!”
Back then Youngs was still only 22. During the intervening years his skills have improved but the progression he is most aware of isn’t his ability to pass or make breaks. It is how aware he feels of each situation. And the only way to get to that point is to go through those moments first-hand.
“Everyone talks about experience, but it is true. You understand certain situations better,” he acknowledges.
“Take Friday night and the messages at half-time – “Don’t panic, this is what we do, we have been here before.” When you are 22 or 23, you don’t really understand that. Now it’s a case of “I know we’re losing, but what do we do to get back in the game?”
“As you get older and go through it, you come up with the solutions and answers that allow you to make those comebacks. The factors that win games. How do you perform in certain situations. That is the biggest thing. Your skills improve, but that knowledge is key.”
All of which makes Youngs a better player than four years ago, and good enough, he hopes, to force his way into Gatland’s plans for New Zealand, where the challenge of toppling the recent back-to-back world champions will be considerably harder than in Australia three years ago.
“The Lions is a really special thing. I really enjoyed 2013 and learned a huge amount from it, on and off the pitch,” Youngs stated.
“I was really fortunate enough to be part of it four years ago. And now like every player in the PRO12 and Aviva Premiership, everyone wants to be on that tour. I’ll be working really hard this year to put my hand up again.
“Going down to New Zealand, it’s as tough as it gets, without doubt.”
Premiership Rugby and the 12 Aviva Premiership Rugby Clubs are supporting the Aviva Community Fund, a nationwide initiative which offers funding of up to £25,000 to grassroots sports clubs and other community organisations close to your heart. Enter at aviva.co.uk/community-fund from September 13