Joe Simpson: ‘Ben Youngs’ critics have no understanding of the game’

Joe Simpson looks on during England's World Cup match against Georgia in 2011

Joe Simpson in action for England during the 2011 World Cup – David Rogers/Getty Images

Martin Johnson picked three scrum-halves in his England squad for the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. Richard Wigglesworth and Ben Youngs were backed up by Joe Simpson; the latter selected after Danny Care damaged a toe and required surgery.

Almost 12 years later, spanning four coaching regimes, the landscape of arguably England’s most contentious role has not changed markedly. Youngs and Care seem set for the 2023 World Cup. Wigglesworth will be an influential figure as one of Steve Borthwick’s foremost assistants. The new man on the scene is Jack van Poortvliet, 12 caps into his Test career, who looks bound for France as well.

Simpson is now ensconced in his new chapter with Walker Crips, the investment management company, after retiring at 34 mid-way through last season’s Sale campaign. He is well placed to ponder England’s scrum-half inertia.

“We haven’t seen that many nines come through in the last decade, which is mainly testament to Ben,” Simpson explains. “I think he’s been fantastic for England, a top-quality international scrum-half. Consistently competing at that level is phenomenal. He’s been the stalwart and Danny has been there for a few years, too.”

Two striking statistics reinforce England’s scrum-half stasis. Firstly, since Youngs’ debut from the bench as an emergency wing against Scotland in 2010, he and Care together have accumulated around 75 per cent of the available Test match minutes in that position. Secondly, in barely 12 months, Van Poortvliet already has the third most Test starts (nine) of all scrum-halves to have represented England over the last 13-and-a-half years. Only Youngs and Care better the 22-year-old Leicester Tiger in the same period.

Test starts at scrum-half for England since Ben Youngs' deb

Test starts at scrum-half for England since Ben Youngs’ deb

It would not be unfair to state that Youngs, England’s most decorated male international with 122 caps, has resembled a lightning rod for criticism for his country’s reliance on kicking and their lack of fluidity in phase-play. Simpson accepts that, yet volunteers a reason for the ire.

“Rugby is full of opinions and most of them come from people with no understanding of the game,” suggests Simpson, who won a single England cap with 13 minutes of action against Georgia in 2011. “Everyone seems to have a romanticised idea of what winning rugby is because they played at under-15 level and remember running the ball and scoring tries.

“Particularly at international level, defences are so good that it is so hard to break things down. The risk-reward of playing from your half is just off. Any mistake and you give away a penalty and your opposition will kick three points or bang it to within five metres. If you throw caution to the wind and run from your own half, you’re likely to get stung.

“The complaints have to be with people that make the laws rather than players that interpret them. I’m telling you now, people would be even more miffed if their team ran the ball from deep and lost control of the game.”

Minutes at scrum-half for England since Ben Youngs' Test debut

Minutes at scrum-half for England since Ben Youngs’ Test debut

This is not to say that Simpson is devoid of gripes about the game as a whole. Indeed, from his new vantage point on the outside looking in, after a career that took in a number of Premiership clubs following his move from Wasps to Gloucester in 2019, stodgy box-kick routines make him cringe.

“Caterpillar rucks are a travesty. I earned lots of my money from box-kicking tens of thousands of times but it’s not enjoyable. If you listed out what you wanted to see on a rugby pitch, I don’t think high-ball competitions between the touchlines and 15-metres lines would be high on anyone’s list. Maybe just above re-set scrums? Why is there a law that presents an advantage to slowing the game down?

“Caterpillar rucks don’t make sense. There is a five-second law that is not enforced. Get rid of caterpillar rucks, make it easier for scrum-halves to be charged down. Then teams will kick off 10 [from fly-half] more. That’s a quicker kick that will aim to go to space.”

Simpson also urges law-makers to somehow shift the “savage” breakdown contest in favour of teams in possession. He would implore the sport to provide “more access to players behind the scenes” and to celebrate “superstars” to make up lost ground on other sports.

Even so, he will not blame Borthwick and Wigglesworth for imparting a “safe and steady” philosophy to the upcoming World Cup because that approach – a “methodical” one akin to that of Leicester – will give England the best chance of progressing deep into the tournament. “I’m not encouraging England to pick livewires and throw it about,” Simpson says. “That’s not the best way for them to win a World Cup.”

England head coach, Steve Borthwick issues instructions during a training session at Pennyhill Park

Head coach Steve Borthwick issues instructions during an England training session at Pennyhill Park – David Rogers/Getty Images

Youngs and Care, who endured a four-year absence between 2018 and 2022, have not always looked assured of making this next tournament. But their longevity has created something of a skipped generation below them. Dan Robson, he of 14 Tests and no starts, had to make do with peripheral involvement and even covered other backline positions twice, against Ireland in 2021 and USA later that year. Ben White, a former England Under-20 captain, has formed a complementary half-back partnership with Finn Russell, scoring tries for Scotland in two Calcutta Cup victories.

Ben Spencer, Harry Randall and Alex Mitchell all enjoyed strong Premiership campaigns in 2022-23 and have been part of England’s preparations this summer. However, they quickly yielded to Youngs, Care and Van Poortvliet. The situation does not surprise Simpson.

“Nine is obviously such a key position and so many teams are taught to be conservative,” he adds. “At Gloucester and Bath, the game-plan was to box-kick to compete from our own try-line up until even the opposition 10-metre line. You box-kick, you compete for a 50-50 and then if you lose the ball, you back your defence.

“That culture lends itself to defensive, tactical players. That’s probably why we saw Willi Heinz go to a World Cup. He’s a fantastic player with a great pass, but it was his sense of control on a game. Alex Mitchell, I think, is brilliant. He’s probably the best attacking scrum-half we’ve got in the UK. But he doesn’t get a sniff, probably because he doesn’t suit England’s game plan. He’s a livewire, but probably can’t bring that control.

“Don’t get me wrong, Ben and Jack have the ability to snipe, but their X-factor is being able to put the ball up and conserve the energy of their forwards. We’ve seen a preference towards controlling scrum-halves rather than instinctive ones. I don’t think that’s doing anyone a disservice, because Ben is a fine player on his day.”

Just last week, George Ford hinted that predictable box-kicking is losing its lustre and that high balls can be more effective when hoisted from fly-half or even further wide. That said, by sticking with Youngs, Care and Van Poortvliet, Borthwick and Wigglesworth have prioritised experience and familiarity. Van Poortvliet may be relatively green, but has spent long enough under his former Leicester Tigers coaches to deliver on a game-plan.

Maybe the next World Cup cycle, a fourth since Simpson’s call-up in 2011, will be the one that finally sees meaningful disruption to England’s scrum-half pecking order.

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