Tom Youngs’ incredible journey from England youth centre to British & Irish Lions Test hooker will be completed in Brisbane on Saturday and it is still a bit of a blur to the Leicester Tigers forward.
It was the current Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer who convinced the former England Under 19 and Sevens star to make the change from the midfield to the madhouse of the front row.
Meyer was among the first people Youngs toasted when he heard he had got the nod over Richard Hibbard and Rory Best to start against the Qantas Wallabies and now, as a fully paid up member of the front row union after one season in the Premiership, he is ready to strike for even greater glory.
“Even at the beginning of the season I wouldn’t have even thought about playing for the Lions. When you get your name read out for the tour you think brilliant, then you get to the tour and think you’d love to get in the Test 23 or even start any game,” said Youngs.
“Then, slowly but surely, you start to get a hunger – ‘I want to start, I want to start’. I’m very fortunate to be given that opportunity on Saturday and I’m going to go as hard as I can, for as long as I can.
“When my engine runs out, or when the coaches feel it’s right to pull me off, Richard Hibbard will come on. He’s a great player, he’ll come on and be very physical and do well.”
So how did the unlikely transition take place and was there ever a time Youngs felt it was a bad move?
“Heyneke Meyer was the one who turned to me and gave me the opportunity to change to hooker. I would like to thank him, but from him then Leicester took over and Richard Cockerill kept it going,” recalled Youngs.
“He could easily have stopped it and said we weren’t going to bother with it, it was silly idea. Then I went to Nottingham with Glenn Delaney.
“George Chuter helped me all the way through, as did Simon Hardy, the throwing coach. There are so many people who have been a part of it, but Heyneke was the guy who did say to me you should play hooker.
“I remember ringing up my Dad and saying something along the lines of I don’t really mind if I don’t make it back to the Premiership because I’m loving it playing hooker and playing at Nottingham. That was the thing – because I enjoyed it so much I committed to it so much more.
“It wasn’t like a chore for me to go and do it. I loved the physicality of the game, I loved every minute of it. There were times when I was getting my head shoved up my backside, but, looking back on it, yes there were bad times, but they made me a better player and I have never regretted the decision at all.”
Youngs’ high work rate and clinical line-out throwing helped him to clinch the starting role at Suncorp Stadium, but his speed around the pitch also helped to influence the selectors. That helps him to do extra work at the breakdown.
And with all the Australian teams being so physical and competitive at ruck time, Youngs is expected to help out his back row in quelling the storm that will be Qantas Wallabies openside Michael Hooper.
Hooper is another converted centre and Youngs got a flavour of what he is capable of when he helped Australia beat England at Twickenham last Autumn.
“We have talked about him at the breakdown. We have to target him when we see him round that area – it’s crucial we are in there quickly because we need quick ball,” said Youngs.
“The Brumbies slowed our ball down very well and we have talked about that this week. We need to be more physical at that breakdown area and get quick ball for our backs to play with.”