sport

Youngs relishing the challenge

Leicester hooker Tom Youngs has revealed he is relishing the challenge ahead of his England debit against Fiji on Saturday.

When Tom Youngs sat on a wall outside Meadow Lane in so much pain he was unable to move after his first full match as a hooker, he knew he had made the right decision to pursue life in the front row.

In the masochistic mindset of a tight forward, pain equals pleasure and Youngs was certain his days "living the easy life" as a centre had gone.

Youngs had always been a combative midfield ball-carrier. For years people had suggested he should move to hooker, even the great England international Peter Winterbottom suggested it.

But it was Heyneke Meyer, during his short time as Leicester's director of rugby, who grasped the nettle and told Youngs he had the ability to become an international hooker.

Youngs, who had played in midfield for the England Under-20s, was on the fringes of the Leicester squad but knew his limitations and embraced a highly unusual challenge.

The transition began at Nottingham in the summer of 2009 and his first full challenge as a hooker came in a pre-season match against the Tigers' feared and famed front row.

It was make-or-break time but Youngs revelled in the physical challenge and, just three years later, he will make his England debut on Saturday against Fiji at Twickenham.

"My first 80 minutes as hooker was a warm-up game for Nottingham against Leicester," Youngs, now 25, said.

"I played against Marcos Ayerza, Mefin Davies and Martin Castrogiovanni and I was on painkillers for the rest of the week.

"My dad (the former England scrum-half Nick Youngs) rang me after the game and said, 'Where are you?'.

"I said, 'I am sitting on the wall outside and I can't move. You are going to have to come to me!'.

"He looked at me. I was absolutely knackered. I could hardly hold my neck up. He asked if I had enjoyed it.

"I said, 'You know what, I did'. I don't know what I enjoy about it. It is the physicality, the challenge of it. I love it.

"In life, if you don't enjoy challenges what is the point in living? I think the whole process has made me a better person."

Youngs remained at Nottingham for two years, rapidly achieving each goal he set himself in the Championship before earning a move back to Leicester as part of the senior Tigers squad.

Squat and powerful, Youngs is a dynamic runner from his midfield days. It was the set-piece that Youngs had to master.

There are still question marks over his lineout throwing but his scrummaging power has impressed England's forwards coach Graham Rowntree.

"Leicester are a great front-row club. We pride ourselves on our scrummaging and they have been so supportive," Youngs said.

"I had the ability to go back to Leicester, do all my strength and conditioning there and speak to guys like Dan Cole and George Chuter.

"I would ask them to look at a couple of scrums on video and tell me what I could do better. Then it was a case of putting into practice what they were telling me.

"It was very hard because in a game you have to get the feeling of the scrum. You have to turn what they have told you into an instant reaction."

Steve Thompson had the same lineout issues when he switched from flanker to hooker but he mastered them in the fires of Test rugby to become an England World Cup winner in 2003.

Right from the outset, Youngs was encouraged by the likes of Meyer and Richard Cockerill, Leicester's current director of rugby, that he could follow Thompson into the England number two jersey.

"People were saying, 'You could play for England' - Heyneke said it, Cockers said it - that I had the mindset to get there," Youngs said.

"All I could look at was what I had to do to play for England, all the little challenges that would lead me here. I have had to learn my lessons very quickly."

This time last year Youngs had a back operation but he broke into the Leicester squad at the end of the season and was a surprise pick for England's summer tour.

Initially it was a development selection. Youngs had not even started a Premiership match at hooker and he made two midweek appearances in South Africa.

Even now, Youngs has made just seven league starts and two in the Heineken Cup, but Rowntree was convinced on tour that he is capable of becoming a top-class international.

"The signs are he is going to be a very, very good player," Rowntree said.

While Youngs was learning his new craft, his younger brother Ben was establishing himself in the England set-up as a spiky scrum-half.

Ben Youngs is on the bench tomorrow. It would be a special moment for the family if Tom and Ben became the first brothers to play together for England since Steffon and Delon Armitage in 2009.

"To watch your brother run out at Twickenham, it doesn't get much more special than that but we can top it tomorrow by both playing," said Tom Youngs.