Reigning champion Josh Rock believes this year’s Winmau World Youth Championship field could be the strongest ever, as he prepares to begin his title defence on Sunday.
Rock will be among the star attractions in this year’s World Youth Championship, as 96 of the sport’s brightest young talents compete for up to £10,000 in prize money in Milton Keynes.
Irish star Keane Barry and 2020 champion Bradley Brooks will also be in action, alongside emerging Dutchman Gian van Veen and JDC World Champion Luke Littler - the current top two on the Development Tour Order of Merit.
This year’s event will see the round-robin phase and the knockout stage from the last 32 down to the final staged on Sunday August 20 at the Marshall Arena.
The final will then be held on Sunday November 26 at Butlin's Minehead Resort during the Cazoo Players Championship Finals, with Rock bidding to defend his crown.
The Northern Irishman demolished Nathan Girvan to triumph on debut last year, storming to a 6-1 success with a 104.13 average – the highest in a World Youth Championship final.
“It meant a lot to win the title last year,” admitted Rock, who could become only the second player – along with Dimitri Van den Bergh – to win multiple World Youth Championship titles.
“I dominated on the Development Tour last year alongside Nathan Rafferty, who was first on the Order of Merit, so it was good to get the title under my belt.
“I’m feeling confident going into this year. I’m looking to retain the title, but I don’t feel as much pressure because I’ve already won it.
“It would be nice to join Dimitri [Van den Bergh], but I would say this will be the best ever field for the World Youth Championship.
“There is so much talent there. Luke Littler has been brilliant, you’ve got Gian van Veen. There is so much quality, so we are all going to have to bring our A-game.”
Rock has enjoyed a remarkable emergence over the last 18 months, winning five Development Tour titles and a Players Championship crown last year, after only claiming his PDC Tour Card in January 2022.
He also landed a nine-dart finish against Michael van Gerwen on his Grand Slam debut last November, before reaching the last 16 on his World Championship bow to underline his rapid progress.
Rock has maintained his upward trajectory in 2023, reaching a maiden European Tour final at April’s Austrian Darts Open, while also featuring in two further finals on the Players Championship circuit.
“I think the averages may not say it, but I’ve been a lot more consistent this year compared to last year,” insisted the 22-year-old.
“It just feels like players are raising their game against me because they know they have to, but that’s understandable.
“When I came in last year, I was the underdog. I was raising my game against everyone else. They were getting frustrated, so it’s coming back on me now, but I think I’m coping with it alright.”
Rock is now setting his sights on a strong second half of the season, with a host of premier televised events set to take place over the coming months.
The Antrim ace was beaten by Damon Heta in the opening round of last month’s World Matchplay, slipping to a 10-5 defeat on his Winter Gardens debut.
Despite his meteoric rise, Rock is yet to reach a senior quarter-final on the televised stage – a record he is desperate to rectify in the latter stages of 2023.
“I want to get back to my top level because I dropped off in the last couple of ProTours and I had a really disappointing World Matchplay,” Rock conceded.
“I’ve got another five majors [remaining] this year so I want to perform better than I did in Blackpool.
“I think if you have the heart and the belief in your game, you can beat anybody, and I do believe I will win a TV major.
“It’s all about what Josh Rock turns up. I believe I will be a World Champion one day, but you never know.”