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Dai Young Q&A: This is my last contract at Wasps then I want Test level

Dai Young - Wasps

Wasps supremo Dai Young tells NEALE HARVEY how he aims to take Wasps back to the top before embarking on a future in Test rugby.

How do you reflect on last season’s eighth-place finish?

We had a number of performances which weren’t up to standard. We want to be consistently a top six team so there was big disappointment that we missed out. There were a number of reasons but this season we want to get back to where we were.

You took a hammering on social media from some fans, did that affect you personally?

Not really. There are not many people that don’t go through it now. The job is different from five years ago because with social media, everyone’s got a view. That view can change quickly, though, and if you win everybody’s behind you; lose and people chuck stones. What I will say is I’ve always had more support than I felt was against me.

Did last season dim your enthusiasm for the fight?

No. If we’d had the same 23 losing week-in, week-out who were out there when we were winning, you’d start to wonder what the difference was. But without wanting to sound arrogant or conceited, I’m pretty sure that there aren’t many other directors of rugby who would have done much better with the circumstances we had.

There were mitigating circumstances with injuries and the like, but you’ve still got to get the best out of the players you’ve got and with three games left we were still in with a shout of the top six. We weren’t a million miles away and I genuinely believe we did as well as we could with the cards we were dealt.

Wasps’ injury list was horrendous. What have you done to address that?

We review everything – attack, defence, set-piece, medical – and we’ve learnt as much as we can to eliminate any reason other than a rugby injury for people being out. We’re doing more prehab than we used to and a longer pre-season has helped us get the boys fitter from a medical aspect so the body adapts better to the physical challenge.

We’ve hired a nutritionist to ensure players are refuelling better and we’ve added another physio and spent money upgrading the training pitches. That doesn’t mean we won’t get injuries but we can look in the mirror and say we’ve done as much as we can to improve things.

There was a lot of noise about players like Elliot Daly leaving because the new training ground hadn’t been built. Your thoughts on that?

Being honest, the culmination of our squad was getting to the Premiership final in 2017 and that squad had been together for five or six seasons.

We’d been through the process of moving to Coventry and it was never going to be for everybody. The training facility has been a frustration and the new facility hasn’t been delivered on time, but that happens in the real world sometimes and it doesn’t mean our current facility is poor. I believed that squad was at a point of disbanding because you had people who’d been there a long time who fancied new opportunities. They’ve all left for a reason: Elliot has gone to Saracens where he probably feels he could be closer to winning things, while Nathan Hughes went to Bristol for something we couldn’t match.

New peg: Elliot Daly left Wasps to sign for Saracens. Getty Images/Alex Davidson

All the players who left were at different stages of their careers. What it has done, though, is allowed us to bring some new energy in and there’s no baggage with the players coming in; they just want to do well for Wasps and you can chuck into that mix some academy players stepping up. We’ve got a renewed vigour about the place and it’s full of excitement and anticipation for the new season, which I probably haven’t sensed over the last year or two when things were a bit stale.

Pleased with the signings of Malakai Fekitoa and Jeff Toomaga-Allen?

You can’t sign Kiwi internationals for every position and we don’t want to anyway, but we’re really pleased with the players we’ve got and with the academy players coming into our senior squad. My challenge is to put a 23 out every week that we feel can win the game but to also develop players and rotate the squad as well. With the signings we’ve made, I’m confident we’ll have a very competitive squad.

What was your thinking behind bringing in Super League coach Martin Gleeson?

We only had three coaches below me last year and it wasn’t enough. We approached the likes of Shaun Edwards and Steve Borthwick, which didn’t quite come off as the timing wasn’t right for them, but we still needed to dissect our game and give our existing people a bit less responsibility so they could spend more time with the players and do a better job.

People point to our defence but the biggest drop off last season was our attack. Up until last season we’d not failed to be in the top three try-scorers but last season we were well down.

Lee Blackett’s done an excellent job (as backs coach) but the game is so big now that it’s a tough job for one man, so I wanted someone who could support Lee with new ideas and Martin Gleeson brings attention to detail over lines of running and skill acquisition.

For years we’ve brought across Rugby League guys as defence coaches, but they score tries in League as well and we’ve been a bit slow to look at that.

I was really impressed when I met Martin and while I don’t think our attack is broken, it needed tweaking and with Lee and Martin working together I’m confident our attack will be a force again.

At the same time, Matt Everard has come on board to work on our breakdown and along with Andy Titterrell (forwards) and Ian Costello (defence), we now have five senior coaches under me. I’ll still help with the forwards.

Regarding your academy, is that ready to bear fruit after some lean years with guys like Callum Sirker, Will Porter and Gabriel Oghre pushing for chances?

When I came on board in 2011, it was pretty much the academy players that kept us up and we built on that, culminating in 2017. That squad has disbanded now but what we haven’t done over the past three or four years is have players ready to replace them. When we moved to Coventry we had uncertainty over where our academy area would be, especially when we were still training in London, so we were treading water for a couple of seasons.

It takes two or three years for you to start seeing your investment coming through so, following our permanent move, this is the first year now where the academy guys are flooding through. They’re the lifeblood of the club and I’m confident they’ll be Wasps players of the future. The challenge is to integrate them into the first team.

Mental health: Kearnan Myall gave a very open interview to the Guardian revealing how the frenzy of rugby competition had driven him to contemplate suicide. David Rogers/Getty Images

Kearnan Myall, one of your former players, revealed last week that the pressures of the pro game drove him to the brink of suicide. Were you surprised to read his story?

Of course, but I welcomed it. We can see physical injuries with players and address them, but mental illness is very serious, which is something we all recognise and want to support and help. So, the more players who come out and speak about it, it will only help those that are suffering. Suffering in silence is not where we want them to be. It was a surprise to me that Kearnan had suffered because, by his own admission, he’d covered it up pretty well. What we’ve got to look at now are ways of educating ourselves to look for the tell-tale signs we can have diagnosed, but none of us are doctors and if someone wants to hide it, they will.

I’m just grateful Kearnan is taking positive steps now and what we want is for players to talk about things without the fear that they’ll not get selected or lose contracts over it. I think those days are gone.

Do you think our arduous season structure contributes to the player welfare issues we’re seeing?

It’s not ideal, but as directors of rugby we’re not involved in that decision-making process. Player welfare is one thing, earning enough income to pay the players is another matter and getting the balance right is very difficult. There are a number of discussions going on around that and you’ll never get it perfect for everybody, but there are changes afoot.

Would you support a 13-team Premiership and easing the threat of relegation?

My personal view – and I stress it’s mine and not necessarily the club’s – is that I totally understand that some of the Championship teams wouldn’t want promotion and relegation scrapped, but how many of the Championship teams want to go up anyway? Why are we keeping something open that very few people want? Secondly, there’s so much money involved in the Premiership now and the game is still losing money, so why aren’t we doing our best to make the businesses sustainable? You’ve just seen Bury Football Club fold and we’ve seen that in the past in rugby, so we don’t want those days to come back. It’s very hard to put business plans together when you’ve got a trapdoor, so while I understand where the Championship clubs are coming from, to have the continual threat of relegation is pretty tough.

If we’d gone down in my first season at Wasps, as we so nearly did, we wouldn’t be here now. You don’t want that happening to anyone else so if it did go to a 13-team league and there was the ability to still have a play-off, that’s probably the best solution for all.

On another hot topic, World Rugby are to trial even lower tackle heights. Your view?

We all recognise player welfare and we all want players to have long careers. None of us want to see guys losing their livelihoods from a wayward tackle. But the nature of the game means bigger guys will tackle smaller guys and we’ve got to be a little more sensible around it. We are spending time in training to get players tackling a bit lower but when the game is as quick as it is now, things sometimes don’t look great when they’re slowed down.

I’ve heard about tackling below the waist but I think that will just lead to more concussions for tacklers. We’ve got to be very careful with where we take this and I don’t think we can go much further than we already are. Rugby is leading the way when you look at a lot of other sports but you don’t want to make it any harder.

Are you disappointed Joe Launchbury is the only Wasps player in England’s World Cup squad?

Dan Robson is another who should be there. I know I’m biased and there are other quality No.9s, but he should be in that group. Brad Shields has just missed out because he got injured at the wrong time so we’ve only got Launchers, but if we’re honest that probably states where we are as a team at this time.

We’ve had a changing of the guard and are in the process of rebuilding and part of my job now is to do well for Wasps and produce international players. We’ve been successful in the past and the aim is to do it again, but we are disappointed with Dan and Brad not going – and you can include Thomas Young not getting in the Welsh squad as well.

Warren Gatland - Wales
In the frame: Dai Young was one of the coaches the WRU considered to succeed Warren Gatland before naming Wayne Pivac. Getty Images

You obviously have unfinished business at Wasps, but, at 52, would coaching a Test team appeal one day?

I’ve been here eight years but it genuinely doesn’t feel that long. If you’d said at the start that I’d do eight years I’d probably have said you were crazy, but with so many things going on – nearly getting relegated, the financial issues of the first couple of seasons, a new owner (Derek Richardson) coming on board, moving to Coventry and now becoming immersed in the area – it feels like we’ve done it in two-year blocks and it doesn’t feel long at all.

When my contract was up at the end of last season, obviously we’d been talking the season prior and Wales had been an interest as well. I was somebody they were keen to talk to and the club were aware of that, while there were a couple of other options I could have looked at.

But Wasps wanted to keep me, I felt there was a job for me still to do and coaches tend to work on international cycles, so it made a bit of sense for me to re-sign at Wasps because I genuinely love the club and want to be part of it. It’s to 2023 and this will definitely be my last contract at Wasps. After that, I’d like to think that over the next two or three seasons I can demonstrate to people that I’m worthy of a Test opportunity. I’ll hopefully come to 2023 having done enough in the game to warrant that. If I haven’t, I haven’t, but I definitely see this as my last contract at Wasps and it would be the right time to have a change.

If an opportunity then comes up in international rugby, I would jump at it. Wales would be something I’d love to do for obvious reasons but you’re never a prophet in your own land and that wouldn’t be my only focus. In an ideal world, if I could get a Test opportunity for four years from 2023, it would take me to 60 by the 2027 World Cup and that would probably be enough for me.

How do you see the forthcoming World Cup stacking up?

It’s probably the most open World Cup. It’ll still take a brave man to bet against New Zealand but they’re not looking the dominant force they have been. South Africa look really dangerous and, from the northern hemisphere, England and Wales are very strong. Wales are ranked No.1 now which adds a bit of confidence.

I know Warren Gatland’s not going to change his focus or preparation whether he’s No.1 or No.6, but they’ve earnt it and it will take a good team to beat Wales. I expect England and Wales to push into the latter stages along with South Africa and New Zealand.

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