Electing to stand down from the British and Irish Lions squad for 2017 will have been one of the hardest decisions that Ben Youngs has ever had to make.
After the news that his older brother Tom’s wife, Tiffany, was suffering from a terminal form of cancer, Ben immediately contacted Lion’s coach Warren Gatland to explain his decision to withdraw from the tour – a judgement that shows dignity, respect and unity in a sport that, thankfully, is well known for such virtues.
But the decision to hand back the famous red shirt will have been a real wrench. The England scrum half is currently at the peak of his career, on-form after a particularly purple patch for England, and one of the best-rated players ever to pull on a Leicester Tigers shirt. At the age of 27, Youngs the younger is currently in the prime of his career, and the 2017 New Zealand Tour would have given him a real chance to shine in front of the global media.
It was, in any other circumstances, an unmissable opportunity to take his profile from that of a class player to a truly world class one.
In 2013, when the British and Irish Lions hit Australia, Youngs was a hot-headed youngster, whose natural skill was occasionally overshadowed by his inexperience. In 2017, he’s a much more established player. He’s also, significantly, a much more mature man – a father and a husband, as opposed to a spirited and occasionally temperamental young lad.
Ben Youngs has grown-up, and nothing illustrates that more than his decision to put his brother and sister-in-law before his international rugby career.
For boys who grew up in a rugby family (their father, Nick, is also a former England and Tigers scrum half), reaching the very top level of the game has always been the two Youngs brothers’ ambition and for Ben, the 2017 Lions Tour was a golden opportunity.
In 2021, he’ll be 31, and may well have dropped out of contention in favour of younger opposition. What he’s passing over is, potentially, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. One that Tom Youngs would probably rather he have pursued, but for which he deserves much respect.
Of course, this isn’t just about Ben. The challenges that his brother and his direct family face in the coming months are tragic and unimaginably awful. But such a strong show of unity and support from his younger brother will undoubtedly be a crutch for Tom in his times of deepest despair. What Ben is doing shows tremendous love, respect and support for his closest blood relation. For the man he grew up alongside. For family. And that reflects one of the fundamental values of rugby and most of those who play the sport.
Ben, Tom, these are tough times. Be glad that you each have your brother, and remember that you will always have the respect and support of your family beyond that. The Rugby Family. It, and lads like you, are what make this sport great.