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Leicester and England scrum-half Ben Youngs reckons that the outcome of the Premiership semi-final against Northampton may well hinge on the performances of the half-backs.
Youngs, who will be paired with George Ford, is set to face off with the Saints’ Alex Mitchell and his 10, who will be Wales and British and Irish Lions veteran Dan Biggar.
Aware of the pressure of the occasion, Youngs knows how well Mitchell and Biggar have been playing and how crucial the half-back positions will be in this encounter.
“I think it’s safe to say that the half-backs are going to have a big say in who wins the game. So myself, George, Jack [van Poortvliet] and Freddie [Burns], we’ve all got a big role in that,” he said.
On paper, the match-up is tantalising, but Youngs was quick to remind people that there will be little one-on-one action between the opposing nines and 10s due to the nature of the positions.
“In terms of going against Dan and Mitch, you don’t, as half-backs, come across [one another]. It’s not like a prop and a hooker where you scrum and it’s one-on-one battles to a degree.
“I think the half-backs will have a big say in who gets the result and those guys have been playing well together.”
When asked about his professional and personal views on long-time half-back partner Ford, who leaves the Tigers for Sale Sharks next season, Youngs was gushing with praise and admiration for the man.
“The way that he conducts himself and the standards that he brings to himself personally every day is incredible. He’s someone that I’ve absolutely enjoyed spending time on the field with, and learning and playing alongside. I’ve had some great times with him but equally off the field as well,” he said.
“He’s a great man, he drives this team forward and he’s a big part of the way our success has been this year. It’s been an absolute joy to do it alongside him.
“He’s had a great time at Leicester. There’s a few people that are obviously leaving at the end of the year and we’ll be doing our utmost to make sure it isn’t ended at the weekend.”
Enjoy 18 seconds of George Ford making rugby union look ridiculously easy. pic.twitter.com/5uaSh58IC1
— Charlie Morgan (@CharlieFelix) April 11, 2022
Northampton pose a rare threat for Youngs and Leicester with the amount of distributors of the ball they have, allowing them to switch up their attacking formation from phase to phase.
And the Tigers scrum-half admitted that their opposition are rather fortunate with the midfield options they have at their disposal.
“They’re pretty lucky with the amount of distributors and playmakers they have. It allows them to put real good width on the ball,” he said.
“Furbs [George Furbank] can slot in at 10 and push Dan out and get more width, you’ve got [Rory] Hutchinson as well.
“They’ve got some nice ball players and it allows them, like I say, to move the ball from wide to wide.
“So, I think from a defensive point of view, sometimes you can get fixated on trying to stop one guy but it’s not as simple as that. You know, it’s about doing it collectively; defence is about working together.
“We’ve got to cut those guys’ time and space away because you sit off Dan and you sit off George and guys like that, then ultimately they pick you off. So it’s a big defensive week for us.”
It’s been a while since Leicester last had a shot at the Premiership title and for Youngs, it makes playing just that extra bit special.
He said: “When you haven’t been anywhere near the play-offs for a while, watching it from afar and watching other teams go on and get success, you do question, ‘Oh, will we get an opportunity like that again? Will I get an opportunity like that again at the club? Will we have a genuine shot again?’
“Maybe when you’re younger you take it for granted a little bit. Some of these young lads now, you want them to not take it for granted and not think that this happens every year because it doesn’t.
“I certainly realised that and it allows you to enjoy this week a bit more, it’s extra special.
“I treat these games like a Test match and it’s like playing in a Test match – exactly the same process. It’s a massive game.”
Leicester go into this clash as heavy favourites having dominated the regular season, losing just four of their 20 matches.
Steve Borthwick’s side also have the added advantage of playing at home and Youngs believes that the Welford Road factor could prove decisive.
He said: “Anyone that comes to Welford Road as an away team knows they’re in for a great atmosphere with plenty of noise.
“From our point of view, playing at home is the best place to play. We expect a great crowd at the weekend and, as always, they’ll be in full voice, helping the team find that extra bit. It’s not too far for the away fans to travel either so I’m expecting a full, full stadium and plenty of noise for both teams.”
Although the energy will be higher around the city this week, Leicester has always had a great thirst for rugby.
“If you go to the supermarket people want to tell you that they’re season ticket holders or that they’re coming to the game or they watched the game,” Youngs added.
“It’s a rugby city as much as it’s a football city as well. We’re really lucky here that we’ve got two top sporting teams playing here and the community gets right behind the Tigers. It’s a good week to be out and about and plenty of people want to tell you they’re looking forward to it.”
Editor’s note: This interview was recorded prior to the sad death of Tiffany Youngs and was published with the agreement of Leicester Tigers. Planet Rugby would like to offer our heartfelt condolences to the Youngs family and everyone connected with the Tigers.
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