Ben Youngs does not want for motivation. After an impressive autumn campaign he has his sights firmly set on keeping his England place for the 2023 World Cup and, having experienced some dismal lows with Leicester in recent years, there is an obvious determination to maintain the Tigers’ current winning streak that sees them top of the Premiership table, up and running in Europe and dreaming of yesteryear.
Equally, though, Youngs is not lacking in perspective. For all that adding to his 112 England caps is driving him, for all that Leicester’s resurgence is bringing the best out the scrum-half, he is clear about the motivating force behind his upturn in form.
In October Leicester announced that his brother Tom was taking an indefinite break to care for his wife, Tiffany, who had fallen ill. In 2014 Tiffany was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma and three years later was given between a month and a year to live. In 2018 her cancer went into remission, however, and Tiffany was declared free from the illness. That the Youngs family has again been forced to confront adversity has left Ben all the more determined to perform on the pitch.
“It’s been a tough time, it continues to be a tough time,” he says. “My responsibility is to try and bring some joy. That’s a pretty easy motivation for me. I want to be able to do that. It is challenging but my job is to perform and try and bring some smiles for 80 minutes at the weekend. That is my role within it and that is what I have got to do.”
On Sunday Youngs captains a youthful-looking Leicester side against Connacht looking to bring a few more smiles. On his last outing, against Harlequins in the Premiership, Youngs was electric, setting up Leicester’s key try with a delightful grubber kick and showing his side’s intent early on by steamrollering Marcus Smith. George Ford has won plenty of plaudits for his form this season but Youngs is matching his former international teammate and during England’s unbeaten autumn he was among their most consistent performers despite having a host of young bucks, led by Sale’s Raffi Quirke, snapping at his heels.
“I’m really clear about where I want to go and how I do that,” says Youngs. “I know where I want to go and I know who can help me get there. That excited me and I wanted to go into preseason and lay the foundations of all that and be really clear and transparent with everyone about what I want to do and how do I get there and who can help me and do all that. My job is to keep tapping into them and try and squeeze a bit more out of the lemon and get the juice and see we where we can take it. I absolutely strive to be a part of 2023. I feel I can add and be of value and still perform. That’s certainly a goal of mine.”
The Tigers have won all nine of the Premiership matches so far this season and last weekend’s narrow victory at the Top 14 leaders Bordeaux – a match for which the 32-year-old Youngs was rested – was a statement of intent that Leicester can challenge on both fronts this season.
Though they reached last season’s Challenge Cup final, it is now almost 20 years since Leicester won the last of their two Champions Cup titles, back when Youngs was a boy on the Welford Road terraces. In more recent times there have been some pretty dreadful results and for Youngs the nadir came in a home 43-0 defeat by Glasgow in 2017. Under Steve Borthwick, however, Leicester are transformed.
‘It gives you that confidence, of course it does,” says Youngs. “At the weekend, you are aced with scenarios and you have that cohesion and that underlying belief that, no matter what is thrown at you, you’re going to find a way to deal with it. That is a nice position to be in, but we train to have that mindset with how we prep.
“When you get on a streak like this, with how it’s going, it’s a great story in terms of Leicester having success, then a demise, then success again. It’s a story which people get hyped up in, but the important thing for me and the other senior players is just to make sure that lads don’t get carried away with it. Although it’s going great, we haven’t won anything! We’ve nothing to show for it as yet, so we just take each week as it is.
The only problem with winning streaks is that eventually they must come to an end. Youngs has experience on his side in that regard, however, and sees parallels with Leicester’s current run and that of England when Eddie Jones’s side began a 17-match winning sequence in 2016.
“At some point, we will get beaten, there’s no doubt about that,” he says. “It’s sport; it’s going to happen at some point. The important thing is that when that day comes, it can’t be that we have beaten ourselves by going into our shells or anything like that.
“Obviously we had that run with England starting in 2016 and you just feel it building, in terms of the intensity in training. Everything just goes up. When you keep winning, you just want more of it. It becomes a bit of a craving and a sense of pride, to not let the winning streak finish. So for our young lads, it’s about not getting lost in the hype but also understand that it’s not a burden to carry this streak – it’s just a great opportunity to carry it on.”