Even as small boys Thomas Young and his two brothers knew instinctively what to do whenever they saw their Welsh international father Dai’s packed bag in the front hall. “Apparently the three of us used to have a fight to get into his kit bag before he went away,” recalls Young Jr now. “The three of us would jump in and say: ‘We’re going with him.’” Like father, like son? Let’s just say the chances of the Wasps flanker pursuing a career in classical dance were never great.
If anything, rugby’s generation game seems to be intensifying. Young Jr is now part of the Wasps team, coached by his dad, seeking to reach the Premiership final and he should also win his first cap for Wales next month. The Farrells, the Fords, the Vunipolas, the Mallinders, the Lozowskis … suddenly family mini‑sagas are everywhere. Even the Lions coach Warren Gatland is set to find his own son, Bryn, turning out for the opposition on the first weekend of the fast-approaching New Zealand tour.
It is important, of course, to stress a mother’s genes can be equally as crucial in shaping a young player’s destiny as the best-known dad’s. Rob Lozowski, whose son Alex is among English rugby’s brightest playmaking talents, played a single Test for England in 1984 but suspects his former gymnast wife Lisa is the real reason why his son, who was on Chelsea’s books as a youngster, is such a multitalented games player: “I was just a straight‑up‑and-down inside centre who used to pass the ball on. He’s infinitely more skilful than I was, there are definitely some genetic irregularities going on.”
Gone, for the time being at least, are the days of sporting sons living in Dad’s shadow. Owen Farrell still has a way to go before he overhauls his father Andy’s extraordinary rugby league achievements but, as Saracens’ Champions’ Cup final triumph showed, he grows in authority by the day. The Vunipola brothers, schooled by their famously tough Tongan international father Fe’ao, are maturing similarly. Professionalism has clearly turned rugby into a more attractive career option but that does not entirely explain why the incidence of fathers and sons both playing at the highest level is rising faster than either football or cricket.
Talk to the proud fathers and all of them swear the whole thing has been anything but a calculated exercise, particularly for Young and Jim Mallinder who now find themselves coaching their kids in the Premiership at Wasps and Northampton respectively. “Me and Jim have had a laugh about it,” says Young. “It’s not ideal, not what I’d choose to do, but from a playing point of view Thomas has done very well for us. I’m really pleased because it can’t have been easy being the director of rugby’s son. I probably overcompensated with him at the start but he’s earned his spot in the team and he’s now getting the accolades he deserves. He just happens to have the same surname as me.”
The paternal instinct, even so, is mighty hard to overcome. “Whether it is tiddlywinks or rugby, as a parent you always support your kids in whatever they do,” adds Young. “It would be nice for Thomas to change his name really. He deserves to stand on his own two feet.”
Every sports-minded father will recognise Young’s mixed emotions; naturally, he and his wife April are equally proud of their other two rugby-playing boys, Lewis and Owen. The whole family are now due to travel to Auckland next month in the hope of seeing Thomas win a first cap for Wales against Tonga, even if melting into the background will be virtually impossible for Young Sr: “Certainly when I go back to watch the kids play in Wales it is very hard just to be a parent, which is what you want to be. You don’t want to be treated differently. People used to take offence if they wanted to chat and I said no; they couldn’t get their head around it. The false glasses, the moustache and big red nose used to come out – I never got away with it.”
Despite such additional obstacles, the Young family seem to be making the best of a potentially awkward job: father and son do their best not to talk rugby at home and the Wasps skipper Joe Launchbury – “I don’t think sometimes you’d ever guess he’s his dad” – reckons Thomas is entirely his own man. That, however, does not necessarily make life easier for his parents as kick-off approaches; by common consent, watching your child play a game as brutally physical as rugby can never be truly relaxing.
Just ask the Maunder family from Devon. Father Andy played 13 seasons and well over 300 games for Exeter, captained the club and sat on the bench for the South-West in the old Divisional Championship behind the Bath and England scrum-half Richard Hill for four years without getting on to the field. Now he and his wife, Felicity, have produced two talented No9 successors: Jack has been chosen to tour Argentina with England next month while his younger brother, Sam, recently represented England Under-17s. “Mum 100% wanted us to play cricket,” says Jack. “The only reason she likes us playing rugby is because she knows we love it. There’s not a single bone in her body that enjoys it. There’s a lovely video of England Under-20s playing in South Africa. We’ve sung the anthem proudly and are about to kick off when the camera pans to my parents. Dad’s sat there in his lucky jacket and Mum’s got her hands over her eyes. She can’t even bear to watch.”
Concerned parents the world over will empathise with the long-suffering Mrs Maunder. Everything is relative – Lozowski Sr has yet to encounter anything in rugby to match the touchline “ignoramuses” who still populate park football – but, physically, the sport grows ever more intense and less forgiving. Even for former Lions captains such as Bill Beaumont and Gavin Hastings, both of whose sons featured in the Premiership this season for Sale and Bath respectively, the Saturday morning mantra is forever the same: may our boys survive unscathed and, win or lose, enjoy their rugby. As you await this weekend’s intense knock-out fixtures, spare a thought for every nervous mum and dad up in the stands.
Rugby’s family affair
Andy Farrell (GB rugby league/England rugby union) – Owen Farrell (England)
Fe’ao Vunipola (Tonga) – Mako and Billy (England)
Nick Youngs (England) – Ben and Tom Youngs (both England)
Dai Young (Wales and Lions) – Thomas Young (Wales tour to NZ/Pacific Islands)
Mike Ford (GB rugby league) – George Ford (England)
Jim Mallinder (England) – Harry Mallinder (England tour to Argentina 2017)
Rob Lozowski (England) – Alex Lozowski (England tour to Arg 2017)