An uncomfortable transition awaits Ben Youngs and Leicester Tigers’ England contingent, who are having to move on quickly from the World Cup final and face up to a fight for survival.
They came so close to the ultimate triumph with their country but now the top cats in the squad must set about trying to avert a disaster for their club.
An East Midlands derby against Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday represents an in-at-the-deep-end return to the domestic game — to launch a salvage operation to stay in the Gallagher Premiership.
Ben Youngs and England’s Leicester stars must now focus on survival after the World Cup
Four weeks ago, Youngs and Co had glory within their grasp before it was agonisingly snatched away by South Africa in a one-sided showpiece decider at Yokohama Stadium. They have had precious little time to rest and reflect on that career-defining episode due to pressing priorities back at home.
Saracens’ 35-point penalty for salary cap breaches has left the champions on minus 22 points at the foot of the league but the team above them are Leicester who have amassed just four points in as many games.
Many expect the title holders to win enough matches to avoid relegation and Youngs is making sure that his fellow Tigers — who only just avoided the drop last season — don’t fall into the trap of thinking Saracens are doomed.
‘It is a mistake to assume that,’ said the scrum-half.
Leicester’s players had little time to reflect on England heartbreak due to priorities back home
‘It’s so early on in the season. They’ve still got an unbelievable squad. It wouldn’t surprise me if they ended up catching a lot of teams up. From our point of view, we’ll just focus on accumulating some points on the board.
‘It’s really important we get some consistency.
‘At the back end of last season, it was a horrible feeling. Looking over your shoulder, worried about all the other results, trying to predict what might happen, ifs and buts. It’s no fun for anyone.’
Earlier this week, ex-Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill warned the club about the danger of thinking that reputation alone can save them, saying: ‘No one’s too good to go down. Saracens will be right in the mix to survive. Leicester will need those 26 points (their current advantage). The first thing they need to do is realise where they’re at and what they need to do.’
Youngs is clear about where Leicester are at. There is a bullish belief the country’s best-supported club can rally but no sense of entitlement.
When the question came about where it has all gone wrong for the Tigers after a long era of success, Youngs said: ‘I have my theories but a lot of those things are not in my control.
Youngs believes that playing for Leicester is more than a job and holds a bond with the club
‘All I can do is focus on performing for the team. Some of the early rounds here were probably a reflection of last year and that lack of confidence. That belief we used to have is now dented.
‘Will it be the year we turn it around? I don’t know. Success this year would probably be top six. You have to be realistic.
‘Things don’t change overnight. One thing is for sure — I want to be part of a consistent team.’
He admitted that for himself and so many other members of the Leicester squad, it is more than just a job. It is not simply about being professional and working hard for wages. There is a deeper bond with the club.
As an example, Youngs spoke of what it means to his brother, Tom, saying: ‘He has probably only got a few years left and doesn’t want to be finishing at a time when Leicester haven’t regrouped and got back in the mix.
‘I feel very much a sense of responsibility to invest in us getting back up, but I am also realistic that it takes longer than six to 12 months. It will take time.
‘Manu Tuilagi had an opportunity to go to Racing and Ellis Genge to Bristol, but they stayed. That shows a lot about the club. It is a great place to play with fantastic crowds.’
Saracens’ 35-point penalty for salary cap breaches has left the champions on minus 22 points
On Saturday, Leicester will have to contend with a crowd who will be fervently against them at Northampton.
While the Tigers are 11th in the Premiership their local rivals are second. ‘We go there as underdogs,’ said Youngs.
He was similarly matter-of-fact about the World Cup when England went into the final as favourites, only to be blown away.
The 30-year-old has had time to take stock but he still has no firm answers about what went wrong.
‘I don’t think it was the occasion,’ said Youngs. ‘You can deal with a few uncharacteristic mistakes from one bloke but, when they add up across the board, it has a domino effect. I still don’t have an answer.
‘I felt like we were unbelievably prepared for South Africa, as much as for New Zealand. I didn’t feel there was any complacency.
On Saturday, Leicester will have to face a crowd who will be against them at Northampton
‘I was speaking to my wife about it. She asked if I would change anything. I wouldn’t have done anything differently. It just didn’t work.’
Youngs is determined that the shattering experience won’t be his last with England. Despite the task facing Leicester, he won’t turn his back on national duty.
‘I still feel good, mentally and physically,’ he said.’There’s no reason for me to not still have that ambition to keep playing. I feel I can definitely add to the team. I still have a huge ambition to play for England. I don’t think I’ll ever lose that, certainly not any time soon.’
Mike Brown will not have the chance to make a return to England duty in the Six Nations as a knee injury has ruled him out for the whole season.
The Harlequins full-back, 34, was determined to make it back into Eddie Jones’ squad. But he suffered a knee problem in pre-season which now requires surgery, meaning he will be out for six to nine months.
Quins boss Paul Gustard said: ‘Losing Mike is a big loss. Unfortunately his situation has worsened, and it would be damaging to his long-term knee health if he continued to try and play.’