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Easing the burden

Owain Jones

Tom Youngs doesn’t do milestones, but when he trots out for his 200th appearance for Leicester Tigers tonight, there may well be a toothy nod of acknowledgement as he surveys an empty Welford Road against Sale. Having celebrated his 34th birthday yesterday, he may have gone easy on the cake, but the Leicester Tigers captain, can afford a moment’s reflection. 

Youngs, a Leicester Tigers Academy graduate, has stuck with the club through thick and thin. Historically, perennial winners, the club has fallen on fallow times of late and would have been relegated were it not for Saracens’ salary cap breach last season. 

In truth, it was not just getting the club’s feverish supporters down, it was weighing on the shoulders of the captain like Atlas with a globe. 

One man who was outside the bubble and saw the pressure enveloping Youngs was Steve Borthwick, the incoming Head Coach. One of the first things he did was take Youngs aside for a piece of sage advice, as the hooker explains.. “He said to me, ‘you’re carrying the weight of Leicester Tigers on your shoulders and it’s affecting the way you play.’ He asked me not to not treat the captaincy as a burden and it’s really helped me in retrospect. I probably was playing with the weight of the world on my shoulders so I’ve tried to play with more freedom. I wasn’t alone but when you came through the Tigers Academy I did, you’re expected to win at all costs.”

Steve Borthwick
Steve Borthwick has added a level of detail that has impressed Youngs (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Youngs speaks effusively about Eddie Jones’ coaching protégé and his influence on the squad, who now sit safely in mid-table, crediting him with turning the tide of a club who went through four DoR’s in four years as they searched for stability. “Steve wants to keep some of the old but bring in the new. His observations were that we weren’t competing in games, especially after 60 minutes, so we had to get fitter. Aled Walters was brought in and has done a brilliant job with our conditioning. The next step is to go from a side who competes to a winning team. We won three games on the trot before the lockdown and haven’t done that for a while. The progress is there for all to see.”

Youngs sound remarkably upbeat as he winds his way back to Norfolk on our call. Whether it’s the rush of post-training endorphins coursing through his veins or he genuinely believes he can help steer the biggest club in England to calmer waters will be borne out by results, but he’s talks a good game. “We are working extremely hard but I’m loving how competitive training is again. Whether it’s yellow and blue bibs, we really go at it. Borthers is extremely demanding but we understand as a squad it what’s needed to pull a team out of a rough patch. We’ll still make mistakes but the culture and DNA has shifted in the right direction.”

No stone is unturned. Even in Covid times, everything is planned for. Any worst-case scenario covered. If a game is cancelled, it’s not ‘what are we going to do now?’ because he’s already been through every option and has something lined up.

Tom Youngs has been impressed by Steve Borthwick’s coaching

The influence of Eddie Jones is writ-large over Borthwick’s coaching ethos, with his attention-to-detail, especially, catching the eye. “No stone is unturned. Even in Covid times, everything is planned for. Any worst-case scenario covered. If a game is cancelled, it’s not ‘what are we going to do now?’ because he’s already been through every option and has something lined up.”

Youngs also feels the recruitment policy has been shrewd with Richard Wiggleworth and Nemani Nadolo coming in to back up promising youngsters like Tommy Reffell, Freddie Steward and Ben White. “Wiggy is massive for our young 9s and Nemzy didn’t have to come to Tigers. He chose to come here because he understood the direction we wanted to go. Jasper Wiese at No 8, has also slotted in brilliantly. You need a bit of X-Factor to win the big games but when you lose players to the Nations Cup or a Six Nations, it’s the wider squad that gets you to a semi-final or final at the business end.”

Tom Youngs
Youngs has learnt not to take so much of a burden on his shoulders (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

In these troubling times, the privilege of being able to continue doing something you love is not lost on Youngs. The Youngs brothers cut their coaching teeth at Holt RFC, and the values they picked up there have stayed with him. “It’s so brutal what’s going on at grassroots right now. Holt played such a big part in our rugby lives. I had 20 cousins on one side of the family and we all played rugby. I had my first beer up there, my first sing-song. It is our family club. The mums and dads who dish out the hot-dogs, the staff behind the bar, the coaching volunteers. There are so many parts to a grassroots club to keep it running. When we have a spare weekend, Maisie can run around with Ben’s kids and they get a bit of the life we had when we grew up. Normal life can’t return quickly enough.”

While rugby has had numerous troubling headlines in recent months over brain injury and an existential crisis at all levels, Youngs feels a knee-jerk reaction would be injudicious given all the benefits the game can give to youngsters. “There are dangers in most sports. Of course more resources need to be invested into the science around concussion, but a compromise has to be found. It would be such a shame if rugby drifted away from what it is; a contact sport.”

“I’m hugely dyslexic and my talent isn’t in a classroom, it’s out on the field. You have to realise the value the sport gives kids. The discipline, the camaraderie, the sense of community. For many, rugby is their family.

Youngs launches a staunch defence of rugby’s values

Youngs said for him personally rugby gave him an outlet in which he could excel at school, when academia was a struggle. “I’m a hugely dyslexic and my talent isn’t in a classroom, it’s out on the field. You have to realise the value the sport gives kids. The discipline, the camaraderie, the sense of community. For many, rugby is their family. I’ve seen kids going through a tough time in other areas of their life. Take the Doddie Gump campaign, the work Hambo does with his ‘Get Living’ centre and the amazing fundraising Kevin Sinfield did for Rob Burrow.”

Youngs can say that without any sense of spin, or disingenuousness that rugby helped him in his time of need. In 2017, he was told his young wife Tiffany’s Hodgkin’s Lymphoma had become incurable. With a young daughter Maisie, the Youngs family were ensconced in a living nightmare. Ben was picked to tour with the 2017 Lions to New Zealand, but after careful consideration, decided to choose supporting his family over professional gratification.

Tom Youngs Ben Youngs
Tom and Ben Youngs run out for the Lions in 2013 (Dave Rogers / Getty Images)

As we now know, a minor miracle was afforded when Tiffany was given the all-clear in mid-2018, something Youngs still can’t quite believe. “We went through an incredibly tough time with Tiffany’s illness. That summer, we ended up going to Centre Parks and had a great time. We made some good memories we could hold on forever in what was a shit situation. I can’t ever repay Ben for his support and I hope he’s never put in that situation. What he did for Tiff and I was massive. It gave us a huge lift. He never came to me and spoke about it because he knew we’d tell him to go. He didn’t want us to feel responsible for his decision, so he spoke to his wife Charlotte and a few good mates in the game and made the call. The British & Irish Lions is the pinnacle of your career and he turned it down to stay and be by our side. That is an incredible act of selflessness.”

Tiffany and Maisie are now back in Norfolk, while Youngs has a little flat in Leicester that he uses during the week. The extended family are all on the doorstep and Tiff is settled, life – pandemic apart – has reached a semblance of normality. “I learnt a lot over the last few years about life and how things can turn upside down but I’m glad to come out the other side.”

As a 9 there’s not really a hiding place if you’re having a bad day and he’s had a couple of shockers, but when people talk about toughness, they are the players who have that top-end consistency week-in, week-out. That’s Ben.

Youngs extols the virtues of his younger brother, Ben

Youngs Snr was able to revel in his younger brother’s achievement of becoming only the second English player to break 100 caps last year. Unsurprisingly, Ben didn’t want a fuss made. “He texted me because he knew the RFU were going to try and get some footage and asked to make it as short as possible because he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. A lot of people may think my brother is a typical cocky No 9, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. He just wants to play the game. We don’t show off about it but I told him, ‘look mate, you’ve got to remember you’ve made so many so proud and you’ve got to let them talk. He said, ‘fair point’. He listens to his big brother sometime!”

With the likes of Ben Spencer, Dan Robson and now Harry Randall regularly trumpeted as being worthy successors to Youngs’ 11-year ownership of the England No 9 shirt, Youngs recognises there are a steady line of suitors in-waiting, so what does Eddie Jones consistently see in him?

“Ben is very good at getting on with people. He’s a good communicator and his game management and leadership has really come on. Eddie can see that hunger and drive is still there. There are some great players about but you read these articles, about this person’s virtues and it’s frustrating. You think, fair enough, but hold on, there are some great things Ben does, too. As you achieve more as a player, what you do well goes unnoticed and the expectation is you do it week after week. As a 9, there’s not really a hiding place if you’re having a bad day and he’s had a couple of shockers, but he knows that and they are rare. When people talk about toughness, they are the players who have that top-end consistency week-in, week-out. That’s Ben.”

Tom Youngs
Tom Youngs takes the ball on the hoof against Scotland in 2015 (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

With Youngs’ England days behind him, does he have any sense of regret over his Test career, in which he won 28 caps, and toured with the Lions in 2013? “It’s funny, you go through the frustration of not getting picked, but that’s down to your own performances. I was going through a lot at the time, personally but at the same time I have no bitterness or regrets. I love watching England and I’m a proud Englishman. I will always support them and I was gutted they didn’t win the World Cup.”

As for what he does when his Tigers contract is up, Youngs hasn’t had to give it much thought. Tending to the land, like his family, is a calling for his ‘second life’. “The whole reason behind moving back to Norfolk is to help me ease into retirement and pull back from the game. When the time is right, I forward to joining dad and my cousins and uncle on the family farm and getting back on the tractor!”

With the days counting down on an illustrious career, Youngs says he will continue to play with a smile on his face. “My contract runs out in June 2022 and I’ll be 35 when that comes round. It’s funny, you’re in a different mindset at this age. I remember saying at 21 that I’d keep playing until I was 32. Well I’m still going. Your perspective changes. I have a family to think about now and I have to consider how my body will hold up after rugby. I’d like to think I’ve always played the game hard but fair. It’s not going to be easy leaving the game, but when it’s done it’s done. I can reminisce about the wins and the losses and look forward to telling everyone I was a lot better than I really was.”

There are a few at Welford Road and Holt RFC who would beg to differ.

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