When England rugby union star Ben Youngs is just another face in the crowd
- Credit: Archant
Ben Youngs has come a long way since first picking up a rugby ball as youngster in Norfolk almost 20 years ago – but he has never forgotten where it all started.
The 25-year-old England star spent his formative years playing mini rugby at Holt and also had a spell with North Walsham before moving to Leicester Tigers and then on to the international arena.
Together with his older brother Tom, he has starred both for his country and the British and Irish Lions and has his sights firmly set on making an impact in next year's World Cup, which is, of course, being held on home soil.
But when he's visiting his family back in north Norfolk Ben quickly goes back to his roots. He will generally take time to catch up with his many rugby friends in the county, and more often than not will also find time to take in a game.
Used to his every move being watched by 80,000 people at Twickenham, the scrum-half likes nothing better than for the roles to be reversed – with Ben Youngs just another face in the crowd as Holt strut their stuff in Division 2 North East of the London and South East Division.
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'It's something I really enjoy doing and I know it's the same for Tom,' said Ben, whose cousin Bruce van Poortvliet is Holt's current No. 9.
'You have to have an appreciation of where it all started for you as an individual and I love going back,' he said. 'It's a chance to re-connect with old friends and also with the club. It's also good to watch the lads play and see how they are doing.
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'Obviously when I go home I want to catch up with family and friends and a lot of them are either connected with local rugby teams or actually play for them, like Bruce.
'It's also a reminder for me about how fortunate I am to get paid for what I love doing. At grassroots rugby people are just playing for the love of the game after working hard all week.'
Youngs admits opposition players occasionally do a double take when they realise their every move is being scrutinised by an England international – and occasionally a group of them.
'The Holt lads obviously know who we are and I think they just see us as part of the crowd when the match is in progress,' he said.
'But occasionally you see visiting players do a double take, as if they are thinking 'What is he doing here?' I have had lads from the opposition come up and say, 'Excuse me, are you Ben Youngs?'
'There can sometimes be quite a few of us there – not just myself and Tom. Some of the other lads might be up for the weekend like Tom Croft and Dan Cole – and it can be funny to see the reaction! But the main thing when you go back and you're watching Holt, North Walsham or whoever it might be it just reminds you that there are people playing purely for the love of the game.
'We love the game as well, but we are lucky enough to be professionals.'
Ben never played senior rugby in Norfolk but he learned the basics of the game in the county in what were his first steps towards following the example of his father Nick, who made six appearances for England at scrum-half between 1983 and 1984.
Holt was where it all started – but neighbours North Walsham also played an important role in his development as a player.
'I was at Holt until I was in the under-14 group but unfortunately we didn't have the numbers when it went to 15-a-side,' he recalled. 'We couldn't play week in, week out because we were only getting 10 or 12 turn up. We had to fold which was a real shame.
'Some of the boys just stopped playing and others, like me, went to North Walsham which was obviously the nearest club. Now I have got a lot of time for both clubs because they both played an important role in my development.'
Is there another potential Ben or Tom Youngs running his heart out on the rugby fields of Norfolk on a Sunday morning? The current first choice England scrum-half certainly hopes so.
'Whether it's at Holt, North Walsham, Norwich or wherever it might be in Norfolk there are kids running around on a Sunday picking up a rugby ball because that's what they love doing,' he said.
'There's a lot of good work going on. At that early age it is just about being out in the fresh air and having fun; about getting youngsters playing rugby and bringing along their mates.
'But hopefully some of those guys will one day be part of the next generation of players in the Premiership or maybe even for England.'