Ask serial tackler Thomas Young what he thinks it’s going to be like out in South Africa and one word immediately springs to his lips: “Physical”.
Young’s Cardiff Rugby will resume their so far encouraging Vodacom United Rugby Championship campaign with back-to-back matches away to the Cell C Sharks and the Vodacom Bulls.
Having returned to the Arms Park from Wasps this summer, it will be the international flanker’s first trip to the Rainbow Nation in a competition where he has made an immediate mark as the top defender, having put in no fewer than 109 tackles.
In fact, he’s only ever been there once before and that was for a pre-season trip with Cardiff 10 years ago when he was just 20.
“We went out there for 10 days and played against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. It was when Phil Davies was coach,” he said.
“I had about 20 minutes in the second half. I remember the old blond Springboks hooker Adriaan Strauss was playing for them. My first tackle was against him, so that was nice!”
It’s interesting to look up some of the names that played alongside Young that day in August 2012. They included current internationals Josh Navidi and Rhys Patchell, plus the likes of former Wales backs Ceri Sweeney, Tom James and Chris Czekaj, while Springbok front-rowers Strauss and Trevor Nyakane were indeed among the opposition.
A decade on and a new South African adventure awaits the now 30-year-old Young.
“It’s going to be a physical challenge, but they can also play, so we will expect a bit of everything,” he said.
“We are not stupid enough not to realise the challenge we have got coming up, but we will definitely step on the field with the aim to win. It’s a challenge we have got to take head on. Everyone is beating everyone in this league. I am enjoying it.”
The four-times capped Young has arguably been Cardiff’s stand-out player so far this season, having started six of their seven URC matches, scoring two tries, a blistering long-range effort against Dragons and a clever spin over the line from close quarters versus Edinburgh.
In addition to having made the most tackles in the competition, he is also second only to his fellow flanker and teammate James Botham (10) when it comes to turnovers won, with seven.
“There’s so much competition in the back row here, you’ve got to play well to stay in the team. I am just enjoying playing,” he said.
Cardiff have won four of their matches to establish themselves as the leading Welsh team in the league in sixth place.
“We spoke about being consistent the first day of pre-season,” said Young.
“We are far more consistent, but there is still a lot of growth in us. As a group, we know we can be much better. There are a lot of young players stepping up and it’s a learning for them and for the group as a whole.”
Thomas’ father Dai Young, Cardiff’s Director Of Rugby, echoes the message that there is room for improvement, while at the same time being pleased with the progress from last term when they finished 14th in the league with just seven wins out of 18 games.
“I am satisfied when you consider where we came from at the end of last season, but we are nowhere near the finished article and we have to keep on working hard at it,” he said.
“We’re determined not to get on an emotional rollercoaster. Win, lose or draw, it’s about improving and being a better team. Last season, we were leaking too many points and not scoring enough, so we’re on the right track, but we still have a long way to go.”
To bridge the gap between their last league game and their fixture against the Sharks in Durban on Sunday, Cardiff arranged a friendly with Bristol at Ashton Gate 10 days ago.
“The thinking behind that was, looking back to last year, it was a new experience having a block mid-season of three weeks without a game,” said boss Young.
“We tried to have some opposed sessions with local teams, which we didn’t really feel replicated a game and we ended up a little bit undercooked. So we looked at Bristol and thankfully they were looking for a game as well.”
While the trip across the bridge to the west country ended in a 31-12 defeat, Young felt it served its purpose.
“We had a lot of boys who hadn’t played much rugby, so there were opportunities for people to put their hands up. The most important thing was getting a run out, so when we go to South Africa the guys have had that game time. You can do plenty of contact training and conditioning games, but you can’t replicate game time,” he said.
“So we were really pleased we could get the fixture because a lot of the boys will be in the 23 over the next couple of weeks, having probably only been on the fringes previously. It was hugely important for them to get some game-time.
“They will be two real high intensity matches, real high physicality and you’re going to need your squad out there. We’ll go to South Africa in a much better position than we did last season and hopefully we can hit the ground running.”
Photo: Inpho Photography