This is the young Wales international 5.5 million people just watched stick it to New Zealand

-Credit: (Image: RugbyPass)
-Credit: (Image: RugbyPass)

There was one moment last Saturday which typified Wales U20s' mental resilience against the Baby Blacks.

With Wales trailing in the closing stages of the first half, the Baby Blacks had an attacking scrum roughly eight metres out from the try line. Given the way New Zealand had been attacking up to that point the Wales management would have been forgiven for thinking the worst.

But up strode Wales hooker Isaac Young, who looked his opposite number straight in the eye before loudly telling the Baby Blacks they were going to come up second best. As the ball was put in by Kiwi scrum-half Dylan Pledger, the Wales front-row held firm, forcing New Zealand to drop the scrum and concede a penalty.

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As soon as the referee blew his whistle Wales' pack were elated, with Young walking straight up to the Baby Blacks front-row and shouting "I told you so." As Warren Gatland has repeatedly pointed out over the years, the mental side of the game is as important as the physical aspect, so the sight of a young Welsh forward refusing to take a backwards step against a New Zealand side would have surely warmed the Kiwi's heart.

"It's about being competitive," Young tells WalesOnline. "I always speak with my dad about trying to take them somewhere they don't want to be, whether that's being physical or playing the psychological element. I want to try to take them to as dark a place as possible."

Wales U20s may have come up just short but they very nearly overturned a 21-point deficit, claiming two losing bonus points and refusing to take a backwards step against a Baby Blacks side who, according to the New Zealand press, were full of "generational" talents. While aspects like skill, physicality and game management are hugely important, the Wales age-grade coaches have put a big emphasis on creating players who are mentally tough and are confident enough to get in the faces of opposition.

And Scarlets hooker Young is one player you'd definitely want standing next to you when under the pump in a game. "He's head of the fines committee out here so he's keeping everyone honest on standards," said Wales U20s head coach Richard Whiffin.

"I've got no issues with his confrontational way of playing the game because he's got the physicality to back that up. He came away with three turnovers and had some outstanding carries.

"Our set-piece was great at scrum time with him on and he had 100 per cent at the lineout. If you act like that you've got to front up and play well and that's exactly what he did.

"It's great to have someone the boys can get behind and know that he may give it out but also he's going to put the attitude with his performance as well."

Young is someone who has had to overcome significant setbacks to get where he is today and is a shining example of what can be achieved by working hard and not giving up.

The 19-year-old was originally a member of the Northampton Saints academy but was eventually deemed surplus to requirements due to his size. "I didn't make it through that cut at under-16s," said Young.

"A lot of the comments were I couldn't be effective around the breakdown because I was too small. They said I wasn't physical enough but luckily I went away worked on it and I think I'm in a better place now.

Isacc Young of Wales during training -Credit:Huw Evans Picture Agency Ltd
Isacc Young of Wales during training -Credit:Huw Evans Picture Agency Ltd

"When I was 15 it definitely felt like the end of the world and I was probably a bit embarrassed by it to be honest. I just saw the only way of fixing those perceptions and changing them was probably going away and working quite hard in the gym."

Lesser players would have thrown the towel in but Northampton's decision only served to galvanise Young who worked hard to prove people wrong. While Covid sent the world to its knees it was actually a blessing in disguise for Young who was able to concentrate on getting bigger while rugby was at a standstill.

Four years later he stands at 5ft 11ins and 115kg, while has been picked up by the Scarlets and is first-choice hooker for Wales U20s. "I think Covid also played a really big part in that because essentially I got in a good two years' worth of physical development within that timeframe because that was pretty much all I was doing," he said.

"I was in year 11 when lockdown happened doing my GCSEs. I'd already been dropped the December before but I took it as a massive opportunity to close the gap.

"Pretty much all I did was work hard in the gym through those times. Luckily we sorted out a gym in my cellar a couple of months before and that's where I spent all my time.

"I think it's really paid off and it's one of the best decisions I've ever made. When I'm on the field I always try to be competitive and bring physicality.

"The coaches spoke to me before and said they wanted me to bring that. I always try my best to bring those two elements and to be as competitive as possible and as physical as I can be.

"That's probably the main focus going into most games."

Young is a product of the Welsh Rugby Union's Exiles programme, qualifying to play in red courtesy of his mother, Clare, who hails from Denbigh. The Exiles programme is a big part of the WRU's new five-year strategy with a firm emphasis on expanding Wales' talent pool, and Young is an example of its benefits.

"When I was in the Northampton Saints' programme I simultaneously did a couple of WRU Exiles camps here and there," he said. "I actually heard about it through a friend of my mother.

"I was doing all right with my rugby at school level and I started turning up at WRU Exiles camps and games. Gareth (Davies) from the Exiles got in contact after a couple of games in U16s and put me in contact with Scarlets."

Young is quick to point out he had no split loyalties while growing up, not even when Wales play England in the Six Nations. "My dad just sits there quietly to be honest. He's an England fan but me, my brothers and my mother have always supported Wales," he said.

"I've always wanted to play for Wales. My mum lets him know what the crack is and he just sits there.

"But it's always been Wales first for me."

Those in the upper echelons of Welsh rugby are extremely excited at Young's potential, with the Scarlets star outstanding in the narrow defeat to the Baby Blacks.

Young is an extremely abrasive player and an explosive carrier who gets over the gainline, while he also made three turnovers against New Zealand. With Ken Owens having recently retired the hope is Young will get more game-time for the Scarlets next season, although he will be competing with Wales hooker Ryan Elias and new South African signing Marnus van der Merwe, among others.

When Young is asked about his short to medium-term goals he makes it very clear he takes things game by game, with hard work his main priority. "I want to work as hard as possible and have as much fun as possible trying to play the game," he said.

"Those are the only two things I'm focused on. I definitely think there's a time when you are too focused on outcomes and things like that and perfection. I've come to the realisation that although you strive for it it's probably not possible in some circumstances.

"I've really learnt to enjoy the game, work hard and see what comes of that. It's been brilliant at the Scarlets. I'm only young and it's key that I learn as much as I can.

"Over the last year or so the big focus has been on the fact that you are never going to be perfect but it's about chasing that and learning as much as you can in these environments where you've got boys who have been there and done it. Whenever I get the opportunity to train and perhaps play at the start of the year I just want to learn as much as I can from these blokes."

If more players had the drive and work ethic of Isaac Young, Welsh rugby would be a better place.