With Josh Rock hitting a perfect leg during last weekend’s Pro Tour it seemed the perfect moment to share this feature piece from the most recent Darts World Print Magazine:
Proudly flying the flag for the next generation of Darts in Northern Ireland are two exciting young guns – all ready to set the professional circuit ablaze.
Last month, Nathan Rafferty, 22 and Josh Rock, 20 successfully negotiated their way through the treacherous Q-School minefield to each gain a tour card for the very first time in their fledgling darting careers.
After some gruelling and nerve-racking days, the talented pair battled away, securing enough points to seize their golden tickets.
Hailing from Co Tyrone, Rafferty is already no stranger to our television screens. During the 2018 UK Open, he stunned darts fans by eliminating defending champion, Peter Wright.
More recently, and by virtue of his dazzling displays in the Development Tour, he rocked up at the Grand Slam of Darts and immediately made plenty of noise.
In his opening game, the fearless 21-year old pushed world number one, Gerwyn Price all the way to a last leg decider.
Recalling the experience, he said: “I was extremely excited to be making my television debut. My initial plan was to make sure there was something to fight for in the final group match – just so it wasn’t a dead rubber.
Rafferty needn’t had worried. Brimming with the confidence of almost taking the World Champ’s scalp, the youngster then had the audacity to beat both Martin Schindler and Krzysztof Ratajski to qualify for the knockout stage.
Unfortunately, that’s where he ran head-first into a rampant Jonny Clayton with the Welsh Maestro producing a master-class display to end what had been a magical maiden journey.
Full of admiration for his opponent, Rafferty said: “With a player like Jonny, you know exactly what you are going to get. You have to be on it from the very start to stand any chance of beating him. I felt I did ok but he was just magnificent on the night.”
With destiny on the horizon, and off the back of a very successful 2021, all signs firmly pointed to Q-School.
Preparation done and a suitcase packed, Nathan headed off to Milton Keynes with just one objective – to return home as a professional darts player.
He said: “In the weeks leading up to Q-School, I’d really been kicking on. The whole previous year had been great to be honest. As well as getting a couple of TV wins at the Grand Slam, I picked up two Development Tour titles and a Challenge Tour one too.
Fast tracked directly to the final stages, Rafferty had just four days to reach the promised land.
It’s fair to say it wasn’t a dream start. After day three and just the same number of victories, the boy from Tyrone was languishing a long way down in the Q-School order of merit.
Only a deep run in the fourth and final event would give any hope to gaining that elusive tour card. In that situation, perhaps you’d feel nervous? Nah, not Nathan.
Reflecting, he said: “When I woke on that final morning, I thought nothing less that winning the event would get me a tour card. But I wasn’t anxious – I just believed in my ability.
“After I beat Shaun McDonald in the quarter-final and turned my phone on, hundreds of notifications came flooding in. So that’s how I found out I’d done it!
So what’s the reaction been like back home? Pretty euphoric you’d imagine.
Laughing, he said: “Oh definitely. Everyone has been amazing. For me, it was pure relief.
And no one is prouder than his manager and owner of MDA Promotions, Matt Ward.
Speaking about their close relationship, Nathan said: “I’ve been with MDA for nearly six years now. Matt has always put a lot of faith in me and I’m happy it’s finally paid off.
“I always believed I was good enough – and so did he. Now having a tour card means a brand new chapter in my life. The hard work starts here.
“Ideally, at the of this year, I’d like to be pushing for the top 64 and to qualify for the Players Championship Finals and the Worlds.”
From what we have seen, that looks like a very decent shout Nathan.
Life as a professional darts player is also a brand new dance for another young man from Northern Ireland, Josh Rock. But he certainly has all the right moves.
Like Rafferty, The 20-year old Antrim born starlet was successful at the recent Q-School and is now looking forward to waltzing onto the PDC circuit.
In recent years, Rock has performed well in the WDF, benefiting enormously from that experience and opportunity. Like so many arrow-smiths, his tungsten journey began as a young kid.
Reminiscing, he said: “I played my very first real darts match when I was 10-years old. Although I always continued to practise, at that age, I was far more focussed on my school work.
“My interest in the game returned at 16-years old and I soon discovered that I wasn’t bad! From that point on, my ambition was to become a professional darts player.”
Despite his tender age, Josh has his feet firmly on the ground and already settled down with his own family.
He said: “I live in a village called Broughshane, Co Antrim with my girlfriend Sarah and our 3-year old son, Jay.
“She has always been brilliant and fully supportive of my darts – texting before and after each match.
“At the moment, I work full time in a factory where my job is basically to hatch chicks and prepare them to be sent to farms.
“Right now, I’ve no intention to give it up. The company are 100% behind my darting career and thankfully, after a chat with the bosses, are more than happy to work around the PDC calendar. To be fair, they’ve been great which is a huge help.”
It was a trek south to Co Kerry which tipped the scales for Josh to finally give professional darts a shot.
“Before this year, I didn’t think I was ready for Q-School. But after performing well at a WDF weekend tournament in Killarney last November, I felt the time was right to take the next step.
You certainly weren’t wrong there Josh! And with some excellent professional backing secured, things had clicked nicely into place.
“I’ve only been with the Big 5 Sports Management a short time. After Killarney, one of the owners of the company, Paul approached me saying that he was very interested”, said Rock
“There were a few other offers on the table but with Paul, I liked what he had to say. So at the start of December, I signed a contract which officially began on 1st January 2022.
“Then of course, I won my tour card so it all worked out great for everyone.”
Heading to Q-School in Milton Keynes, confidence was high for Rock but it’s a cauldron and you need to handle the heat.
And handle it perfectly he did – qualifying for the final stages on day one.
Once Q-School resumed, he said: “I felt I did okay at the start – got to the last 32 on day two. Then on the third day, after being beaten in my opening match, I told my manager Paul and also John O’Shea that I was going to win the next event”, said Rock.
“So the following morning, I woke up feeling confident. As I only had one point on the qualification order of merit, there was little expectation or pressure. I just went out to enjoy myself and see what happens.”
Playing with that freedom certainly seemed to work. After defeating Daniel Day in the quarter-final, that elusive tour card was within touching distance.
Next up, standing between Josh Rock and glory was the newly crowned World Youth Champion, Ted Evetts in the semi-final.
“I knew what a tough game it would be against Ted. But, as he’d already secured his tour card, I was hoping he might switch off a little!
“When I beat him, I was beyond thrilled inside but remained focussed on the final. But immediately after the match, Paul came over and congratulated me on becoming a PDC tour card holder.
“There was a moment of disbelief then all of my emotions poured out and I began crying. This is what I’d dreamt of it – finally all my hard work had paid off. I was a professional darts player.
“Apparently, all I needed against Ted was one single leg – but I didn’t know that. Seemingly, John O’Shea did. That explained why he kept winking at me during the match. I wondered what he was doing!
Now with two years to show to the darting world just what he can do on a professional oche, Josh is looking to leave no stone unturned in his pursuit for tungsten glory.
And he can’t wait to get stuck in and turn heads – if you smell what the Rock is cooking!
Originally published in Darts World 578
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