David Young: There were dark days when I sat in the house with the lights off, worrying about the future. Had I known in advance what I came to know, I wouldn't have taken on this job
He had to endure dark days at Wasps before he could see the light the club are bathed in now. That is why, he tells Chris Hewett, he is taking nothing for granted
David Young has found himself at the epicentre of so many seismic sporting tremors and aftershocks since joining Wasps as rugby director, a little over 18 months ago, that he can be forgiven for feeling just a little uneasy as the former European champions bask in the relative calm and serenity of a top-five position in the Premiership table.
"There is," he acknowledges, "a greater sense of stability about the place and we're all grateful for that. But without wishing to pour too much cold water on things, I think some people are getting a touch carried away. Two defeats now and we'll be looking over our shoulders again, wondering what might happen to us."
It is a typical prop forward's view of the world: like most of his front-row brethren, the Wales and Lions scrummager of yore sees life as a series of fierce struggles on the road to salvation rather than one long, uninterrupted glory march up the mountainside. Tomorrow's home game with Bath at Adams Park is the next obstacle on the path for a club who might easily have fallen through the trapdoor last term and, as relegation would have threatened their very existence – "A lot of people thought we would be no more if we went down, and they probably weren't a million miles from the truth," Young says – the need for a regular reality check is obvious.
"You have to ask yourself the right questions," says the 45-year-old from Aberdare, an old mining town in the heart of the Cynon Valley. "Are we the finished article? No. Nowhere near it. Are the games ahead of us more difficult than those we've won recently to work our way into the top half of the table? Yes, very much so. Don't get me wrong, if someone had come up to me at the start of the season and offered me fifth place at New Year, I'd have snapped off his hand at the wrist. But the moment we start thinking we're better than we are is the moment we come unstuck – and people at this club know how unstuck things can get. My message to the players and staff this week was simple one: 'It's been a good half a season,' I told them, 'but the important half starts now.'"
All the same, fifth is a very decent return from the 12 rounds of Premiership matches to date. Last season, when the Londoners escaped the drop by a single point, they scored 30 tries in 22 league games. This term, they are already within three of that total, thanks in no small part to some exhilarating finishing from the super-quick likes of Tom Varndell, Christian Wade and Joe Simpson. Wasps are playing at the high tempo of yesteryear – the kind of tempo that scared opponents witless in the good old title-laden days – and Young's intelligent recruitment has brought depth and balance to the squad. Not every coach would have signed such beaten-up thirtysomethings as the outside-half Stephen Jones, the centre Andrea Masi and the hooker Rhys Thomas, but each and every one of them is contributing strongly.
Last season? Ah, that was different. Only Young knows exactly how different, and he tells the story in quiet tones, beginning with his decision to end his long stint with Cardiff Blues. "I felt I had to prove myself outside of Wales," he says, "and the Premiership was exactly the kind of challenging environment I believed I needed to experience. I was presented with an exciting vision by the people then running Wasps: there was a lot of talk of new investment, new training facilities, even a new stadium the club could call its own. Within a month, all that had disintegrated. I found myself doing a completely different job to the one I'd signed up to do because all the parameters had changed, especially in the financial sense.
"Were there moments when I found it hard? Yes. I found it extremely difficult. Were there dark days when I sat in the house with the lights off, worrying about the future? Yes, there were a few of those. At no point did I regret leaving Wales, but had I known in advance what I quickly came to know, I wouldn't have taken on this role. Rugby pressures are rugby pressures: long-term injuries, sudden retirements, awkward selection issues ... I'd been around long enough to deal with that side of the job. The off-field stuff was another story. Trying to reassure people who weren't certain if they were going to get paid at the end of the month was tough, not least because I had no one I could really talk to, no one who could give me answers to the questions I was asking. When people came to me looking for answers, I couldn't provide them. I couldn't tell them what I didn't know."
Did he consider walking away? "Actually, I've turned down two job offers since I've been here," he says by way of reply. "Very quickly, I felt a strong sense of loyalty to the players and the staff. Nothing that happened behind the scenes was their fault, so it was down to me to be strong and show some commitment. I'm up for a fight as much as anyone and, together, we just about won the fight to stay in the Premiership. Since when, the club has been sold to a new consortium, who are actively seeking further investment. Things aren't completely settled here but we are on a more sustainable footing, and that's reassuring."
Now that he has resumed worrying about the things a rugby director is paid to worry about, life is more straightforward. Straightforward, but by no means easy. The Wasps squad is far from the biggest in the Premiership – "I have 36 players, half a dozen of whom are long-term injured, and most weeks I select from 26 at most," Young says – and there is no immediate prospect of introducing a luxury rotation policy of the kind operated by Saracens. "All I can do is manage things as sensibly as possible with a view to having a team left by the end of the season," he adds.
Yet with the Wasps Academy, run by the master talent-spotter and developer Rob Smith, continuing to produce bright young things across a range of positions, the future has a faint but increasingly healthy glow about it. Some of these youngsters – the free-scoring wing Wade, the multi-purpose goal-kicking back Elliot Daly, the fast-improving No 8 Billy Vunipola, the flanker Sam Jones – were thrown in at the very deepest, most shark-infested end last season and were at the very heart of the survival campaign. Another, the lock Joe Launchbury has already broken into the England side and is being spoken of as a potential Lion in Australia this summer.
Young's most delicate task is to balance the legitimate claims of these players to a place in the senior side against those of the more battle-hardened newcomers – not just Stephen Jones, one of the finest outside-halves of his generation, and the rugged Italian centre Masi, but the X-factor Springbok loose forward Ashley Johnson and the nearest thing Wasps have to a prodigal son, the England flanker James Haskell. Some of the academy graduates, most notably Sam Jones, have found themselves squeezed; a poor reward, on the face of it, for the heroics of last term.
"I'm only too aware of what the young players gave to the club last season," Young says. "We were big numbers down and we needed them to grow up fast, which they did. But some of them probably played too much first-team rugby than was good for them, albeit out of necessity. All players want to play every week and patience doesn't come easy to them, but everyone will get enough of a show between now and the beginning of May. There's a Six Nations coming up, for starters."
Wasps are certain to lose Launchbury to that tournament, and expect to lose Haskell too. "I think James would accept that he made a slow start to the season," Young says, "but that was to do with tiredness as much as anything. He played a full French season with Stade Français, went straight to the World Cup, then had a spell in Japan before playing Super 15 in New Zealand. He came to us off the back of a lot of rugby, which wasn't ideal. Not that I've heard him complain. It was his own doing, after all.
"Now, he's in excellent form. Like the other signings, he's playing a full part in a happy squad and enhancing what we do on a weekly basis. I knew he had a reputation as a big character but didn't quite know what to expect, not having previously worked with him. What I've found is someone with tremendous enthusiasm. Between you and me, I think he just wants to be loved."
There were any number of Wasps feeling that way at the start of 2012. Thanks largely to Young and his front-rower's resilience, levels of confidence and self-esteem are far higher at the start of 2013.
My future life: Wales coach
David Young was frequently tipped as a Wales national coach-in-waiting during his long spell at Cardiff Blues and will be a strong candidate when Warren Gatland ends his term of office after the 2015 World Cup in England. Phil Davies, a No 8 who played alongside Young in the Red Dragon pack, is currently in charge at the Arms Park after two spells in the Premiership and will also come under consideration, along with the former Test centre Nigel Davies, who has been a big hit since taking over at Gloucester.
"I signed a four-year deal when I joined Wasps and I'd like to see it through," Young says. "I've never been a quick-fix merchant – never been one to bugger off after a year in search of something new. I see myself as a builder, and you don't build anything worthwhile in the space of a single season. But I've made no secret of the fact that I'd like to coach at international level one day and, as a Welshman, I'd love to coach Wales first and foremost. If I do a good job in the Premiership, maybe it will lead to something else."
Back from the brink: Fall and rise of Wasps
* 2007-08 Rose from 10th to beat Leicester in Premiership final – a sixth league title as Lawrence Dallaglio retired.
* 2008-09 Under-par performances lead to seventh-place finish and failure to reach knockout stages of Heineken Cup. Ian McGeechan steps down as director.
* 2009-10 James Haskell Tom Palmer, Riki Flutey, Eoin Reddan and Danny Cipriani depart, but Wasps end fifth.
* 2010-11 Slip down table again, finishing ninth. David Young appointed director.
* 2011-12 Club put up for sale by Steve Hayes after Wycombe Council withdraws support for new stadium. Number of injuries and retirements result in finish of 11th, avoiding relegation by one place.
* 2012-13 Financial issues result in players not being paid. Taken over by new consortium owned by former player Ken Moss, keeping club from administration. Start season well, sitting fifth after 12 games.
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