PARIS, France -- Ben Youngs' last act in an England shirt was the type of pass he'd have made millions of times. In itself, it was routine, a short ball to Marcus Smith in England's 22 with the young fullback clearing it near halfway. Nothing flash, just part of his job as scrum-half, and the type of thing that would have been completely instinctive.
His final match for England, his 127th cap, saw his team secure the bronze medal at Rugby World Cup 2023 thanks to a narrow 26-23 win over Argentina. By the time the board was held up with the red 9 and 21 in the 51st minute, he'd already been retired from international rugby prematurely by the stadium announcer, who told the Stade de France Danny Care had already replaced Youngs before the swap actually took place. But when the moment came, Youngs was over on the far side of the field.
The area just behind the players' replacement bench is where the England players' family sits. Tom Youngs was there, Ben's older brother, along with other members of the Youngs family. Playing alongside Tom was one of Ben's most cherished England memories - that and the New Zealand semifinal in 2019, the Grand Slam in 2016, and whitewashing the Australians on their tour the same year. Alongside Tom were two younger members of the family wearing Youngs 9 shirts from different parts of his 13-year Test career. Everyone in that pocket of the stadium rose to their feet as England's most-capped men's player walked off for the final time. An incredible 127 caps and done.
"Watching him in a white shirt over all the years, I tip my hat to him for his due diligence and his hunger to always get better," Tom Youngs said on Friday. "And to always be part of an England squad for 13 or so years is unbelievable. It shows the quality player he is but also the person he is. You've got to fit into squads. You can't be a bad human being or you soon get found out. I'm immensely proud. To be over here now with a group of family, it's really special to be able to watch his last moment in an England shirt."
Youngs has been an incredible servant to English rugby. He's played for four coaches: Martin Johnson, Stuart Lancaster, Eddie Jones and now Steve Borthwick. His England career spans such a period of time that when he made his Test debut back in 2010 - a replacement on the wing for Ugo Monye - Borthwick was his captain. "Every coach wants different things, but I have had four with England and I have been picked by all of them," Ben Youngs said earlier in the week. "I guess I am proud of that because it shows I clearly bring something to the party."
He's certainly done that. When he announced his impending international retirement on Wednesday, it was met with an outpouring of love from the game. It's testament to a man who is widely admired, a kind soul who has put family first. On the field he's been the personification of consistency and endurance and for him to walk off on his own terms is a fitting end to a remarkable career.
"The game has given me so much I have got huge friendships and bonds not just in this England team, but people I have played against for years," Ben Youngs said.
As he reached the bench, he was hugged by each person there, among his teammates for the final time. He gave a little wave to his family before the anthem and applauded them as he walked from the field. Job done, 127 and out. "What we are as family, we look after each other but we also keep each other very grounded," Tom Youngs said. "His 127 caps come from the way my mum and dad brought him up and the way our cousins and aunts. It's made him enjoy the moment and keep that hunger."
It was one of those sorts of matches. It felt sentimental in some regards given several players were playing their finial Test, but then you catch a glimpse of Michael Cheika in the coaches box, you look at the players hunched over, some bleeding and you're reminded it's why they call it a Test match.
It was at times a tough watch, but no quarter was given. England had made eight changes from the team that lost to South Africa by a point, Argentina made three. There were glimpses of the present and future across both teams, but also reminders of those at the end of their Test careers like Dan Cole, Youngs, Nicolas Sanchez, Tomas Cubelli, and the ageless Agustin Creevy.
On Thursday at the captain's run, Joe Marler, Cole, Youngs, Courtney Lawes and Jonny May led the team out. May had previously said this would be his final tournament for England, Lawes announced it would be his after the Springboks defeat and then Youngs took his bow on Wednesday. Youngs' next duty was to tell the BBC that Marler was also retiring from international rugby, but he'd asked Youngs to do it as he'd already retired a couple of times from England and was worried no one would take him seriously this time around. Others may follow: Cole is one who at 36 years old likely doesn't have another World Cup in him.
But amid the sentimentality, there was brutality in this match. Players from both sides shed blood, Sam Underhill - a late injury call up for England - was outstanding while Smith at fullback put in a valiant shift in trying to halt anything and everything in navy blue.
It didn't have the intensity or on-field drama of some of the best matches we've seen at this World Cup. But there were moments of brilliance, like Santiago Carreras' second-half try as he danced through have of England to score.
England led for all but two minutes of the match thanks to tries from Ben Earl - a wonderful move putting him through Argentina's defence - and Theo Dan who snaffled up his own chargedown to cross. Owen Farrell kicked both conversions and four penalties. Tomas Cubelli crossed for the Pumas in the 36th minute off the back of a great sweeping team move, while Carreras scored his solo effort just after the break. It was evenly matched, tentatively poised and Argentina could have taken this to extra time had Nicolas Sanchez slotted a straight-forward penalty in the 76th minute. But in the end England's resolve held out, and they drew a penalty at the end to finish things off.
England's World Cup finishes with a victory, an impressive return considering where they were at the start of the year. Once they'd received the bronze medals, Youngs headed over to the crowd and to his family. Six of the younger members of the Youngs crew joined him on the pitch, two immediately running to near the 22 and performing cartwheels. He walked with his family around the Stade de France as an England player one last time, bringing an end to a remarkable Test career of one of the sport's most selfless players. "I have a bucket load of memories and I am very grateful, so thank you everyone," Youngs said. "I will have a beer and enjoy myself with the boys tonight."