Just occasionally, photographers are right to insist a picture says more than a thousand words. The victory photos taken on the final night of the 2011 Six Nations are a prime example: England in their Dublin hotel, ties at half-mast, trying to look like contented champions but fooling no one. Such is bittersweet life for tournament winners who have just missed out on a grand slam.
Even six years on, Ben Youngs does not even try to supply an upbeat caption. “That was a strange one,” he says, recalling the last time England crossed the Irish Sea in search of a clean sweep only to lose 24-8 and have the edge removed from their title celebrations. “It just doesn’t seem right to lose a game and then go and get a trophy, does it?” This time the scrum‑half, one of six 2011 survivors in the visitors’ squad, would prefer a more uplifting memento for his downstairs loo.
This campaign feels substantially different. For a start the 27-year-old is a far more experienced operator. Back then he had started nine Tests for England and was behind a pack short of world-class beasts. If Ireland win on Saturday it will involve neutering a far heavier-duty forward unit. “We’re very fortunate to sit behind a juggernaut pack,” says Youngs, about to represent his country for the 70th time. “These boys have put us on the front foot a number of times and that’s allowed us to put other teams under pressure. A lot of credit has to go to them.”
England, though, are also transformed in other crucial ways. Six years ago, Youngs was sent to the sin‑bin by the Kiwi referee Bryce Lawrence for preventing a quick Irish tap by throwing the ball away; he is a far less flustered campaigner nowadays. It is the same with his team, courtesy of Eddie Jones’s straight-talking approach. “When we came off against Scotland we were straight on to Ireland,” says the Leicester No9. “Although we’ve won the title, we don’t feel like we’ve won it yet. It won’t feel like that unless we get the result we want. The thought of being defeated and going up to get a trophy … it wouldn’t feel right.”
Ireland, according to Youngs, will also find their visitors hardened by their experiences to date, not least in Cardiff where England located a second-half escape route that eluded Ireland last Friday. “With this side we’ve got a lot of experience but I also don’t see us being shocked by another team’s intensity. If anything we’ll focus on the first 20 and look to impose ourselves rather than wait for the opposition to dictate the tempo. We’d much rather go out and attack it rather than waiting to see what the pace of the game is like.”
That is precisely what happened in 2003 when England won a grand slam in Dublin 42-6. No one is expecting a similarly lop-sided result this time, even in the absence of the injured Conor Murray and Rob Kearney, but Youngs can hardly wait to get cracking: “That’s the key: you’ve got to embrace it. Eddie spoke really well when he addressed the side on Sunday evening. One of the things he said was that the chance to win back-to-back grand slams will probably never happen again for any of us. So why waste that opportunity?
“He said the last thing we want to do is to use that as a negative that will hold us back in any shape or form. All this week has been about attacking it.
“Our motivation is huge. We’ve got a chance, as Eddie put it, to be a team that people potentially see as a great side. I see our motivation and desire to win the game as higher than Ireland’s because we have got so much to win. We’ve got to be excited by that and embrace it.”
For England, such clear-eyed belief is everything to them right now. “What we have is an unbelievable amount of clarity around how we want to play,” Youngs says. “With clarity you get belief. You don’t need to go off script or pull rabbits out of hats because everyone has belief within the plan. Against Wales everyone talks about their clearance kick going infield but, had the ball gone out, I still think we’d have scored. We’d have had a lineout on their 22 with five minutes to go. I have no doubt we’d have found a way of winning.”
Within 12 months, form and fitness permitting, Youngs could be England’s most-capped scrum-half having overhauled Matt Dawson. Emulating Dawson by claiming a World Cup winners’ medal is the long-term goal but, for now, the pursuit of a repeat grand slam takes precedence over a world record for successive Test wins.
“From our point of view, why focus on two things when we can focus on one?” Youngs says. “Focus on winning the grand slam and the record comes with it.”
The power and the glory? Achieve both and this year’s post-match photos will be collectors’ items.