It all began with an injury to Ugo Monye. There were 25 minutes left to play of England’s Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland at Murrayfield in 2010 when the England wing went down injured, a stretcher hurried out with England’s outside back replacement, Ben Foden, already on.
Ben Youngs rapidly stripped off and threw himself into the action on debut, adjusting to an unexpected start to life in an England shirt on the wing as assistant coach Mike Ford charged up and down the touchline barking instructions.
How long ago that dreary draw now seems. On Friday evening, Youngs will make his 127th and final appearance for England, retiring as his nation’s most capped male rugby player, testament to his longevity, consistency and quality. On Monday night, after Steve Borthwick told his scrum half he’d be starting the World Cup bronze final against Argentina, Youngs pulled his coach aside and confirmed that this would be it. One last start against Argentina awaits.
“I’ve got brilliant memories,” reflected Youngs. “I’m so honoured and privileged to have done it for this long. I’m also really privileged and honoured to get to play, to end it on my terms, then get to walk away. It feels like absolutely the right time to do it.
“I’ve done it for so long and there’s great talent within the nine jersey. It just feels right. I feel so content. The fact I had this in my head for a long time and then I didn’t hesitate about it makes me realise that it’s absolutely the right decision.
“I’ve also got a young family and all those bits come with it. I will go back and play my club rugby and I look forward to doing that. The 13 years does go like that [clicks fingers], and you’ve seen my highest highs and my lowest lows. It will be nice to finish on a high on Friday.”
A player who began his career as a lightning-quick scrum half who would threaten the fringes morphed into one of the best controlling nines in the country. Youngs has had to wear plenty of criticism, but he has been a favourite of four England coaches, making his debut under Martin Johnson, becoming a mainstay under Stuart Lancaster, thriving under Eddie Jones and then featuring during the Six Nations as the Steve Borthwick era began.
It has not been the tournament that Youngs would have liked, a couple of bench cameos in the pool stages but a watching brief otherwise as Alex Mitchell and Danny Care secured spots one and two in the scrum half pecking order. But Borthwick made a point to talk up how key the veteran nine has been in supporting the team during this tournament, aiding Mitchell’s development particularly. Jack van Poortvliet, who would have been in England’s 33-man squad but for injury, has also benefitted from Youngs’s advice for club and country. The 34-year-old is contracted with Leicester Tigers through to the end of the season.
“I will miss the adrenaline of running out in front of a full stadium,” Youngs said. “I’ll actually miss the pressure of big games, when everything is on the line. I’ll miss the build-up to the week, when it’s a big week with your team-mates – and I’ll also just miss that camaraderie; the common goal of trying to achieve something special within an elite group.
“I’ve done a good role for a long time now, so at some point your role changes and it has changed this time for me. I’m just grateful that I get the chance to play on Friday and get that opportunity with the boys.”
There will be barely a bad word said about the retiring nine, popular throughout every squad in which he has been. Full-back Freddie Steward described his Tigers and England teammate as a “surrogate uncle” this week.
Youngs has achieved so much but remained true to a tight-knit family, withdrawing himself from consideration for two British & Irish Lions tours to support his sister-in-law, Tiffany, during her battles with cancer. Tiffany passed away in June of last year; the image of Ben and Tom holding aloft the Premiership trophy - the younger Youngs sharing the triumph with his big brother just weeks after his wife’s passing – says it all about one of rugby’s nicest men.
“Playing alongside my brother was an incredibly proud moment for me. Having a tough spell off the field and still continuing to play for England, and playing rugby, when there was a lot of stuff going on away from the game.
“To get to 100 caps and be a part of that group is very special. The main thing is to do it consistently with such a hard position to play in and with such great competition. I have had four coaches with England and I have been picked by all four. Every coach wants different things but I have had four with England and I have been picked by all of them.
“[I’d like to be remembered as] somebody who has given a huge amount. I have seen it get really high with England, and I have been through a few rebuilds. I would like to think I was someone who was a big part of a successful team and I think I am leaving the team in a good spot.”