Norfolk scrum half Youngs backed to shine for England

Norfolk scrum half Ben Youngs can be the future of English rugby – according to one of the game's most respected figures in this country Brian Ashton.

Youngs makes only his third start for Martin Johnson's side in the latest Autumn international at Twickenham on Saturday against Australia after a meteoric rise through the club ranks with Leicester Tigers.

Ashton helped guide England to the 2007 World Cup final and on a coaching trip to Norfolk yesterday backed the 21-year-old to play a key part in a new era.

'The first time I saw him was when he was 16 and he might still have been here,' said Ashton, speaking at Youngs' former school Gresham's where he put pupils through their paces before attending a session at Holt rugby club. 'It was the latter days of when I was involved running the national academy. He came along with a very strong group of scrum halves, but even then it was pretty evident there was something special about him.

'He just has a great vision for how the game should be played. The last thing you do with a player like that is stick him into a structure. You build the structure around him and give him the freedom to play the game naturally. He has this maturity and he looks like he belongs at that level and hopefully he'll have a long career. I know his Dad really well, in fact I think I coached him as well, and the Youngs' family trait is to get your head down and just get on with it. He has one or two technical things to work on but he has Kyran Bracken as his mentor and he was a real high quality international number nine.'

Youngs' first senior international start at Twickenham ended in a 26-16 defeat last weekend to a New Zealand side Ashton believes will take all the beating in next year's World Cup on home soil.

'They strolled through, but it was difficult to make any conclusions. It was a nothing game,' he said. 'England put a bit of pressure on towards the end but it was the old inability to finish things off and you just got the feeling that had England scored, the next thing would have been New Zealand would have scored. They were playing that type of cat and mouse game.

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'Over the past 12 months Australia and New Zealand look as though they are trying to play a totally different style of rugby from the one in the northern hemisphere. They don't always get it right but when it works it can be quite scary. I cannot believe that New Zealand can get it wrong again in their own country – otherwise you might see 22 players and a management team having to emigrate.'

Ashton believes Johnson's current crop will need more time to develop to emulate his side's achievement in reaching the last World Cup final in France where they eventually lost to reigning champions South Africa.

'I think they are still evolving and we constantly seem to be doing that in England,' he said. 'People remember the side that won the World Cup in 2003 but that took seven years to get its act together from 1996 onwards. At the end of that World Cup tournament you could probably say we had six or seven who could get into a World XV. I'm not all that convinced any would get in at the moment and there is the difference. I think we still have a bit more evolution to go before we get the balance right that can give us a chance to make a strong challenge.'