This season has seen a lot of praise for the young players coming through the system at Cardiff Blues. Corey Domachowski, Kieron Assiratti, Seb Davies, Tomos Williams and Jarrod Evans have all earned rave reviews for their performances in the Guinness Pro14, and rightly so.
However, along side those guys has been a player quietly getting on with his business in the back row. A man who is always around giving his all for the Cardiff Blues jersey, but perhaps has not had the recognition outside of the Arms Park that he deserves.
Josh Navidi has now been a stalwart of the club for six seasons, after breaking into the first team properly during the 2011/12 campaign.
Having made his debut in October 2009 he has gone on to make 145 appearances for the capital side, scoring 20 tries and making more than 20 appearances in each of the last five seasons.
Multiple player awards have been won by the back-rower in 2013, 2014 and 2015, with it almost feeling like Navidi has not won anything for the last two seasons purely on the basis of letting someone else win something.
Outside of the capital though, his achievements have been overshadowed by team-mates and fellow Welsh back-rowers, with Navidi going up against Sam Warburton, Ellis Jenkins, Justin Tipuric, Dan Lydiate, Thomas Young, Ross Moriarty and Taulupe Faletau, amongst others, for international honours.
This has restricted him to just three Wales caps in his career so far, when perhaps in a different generation he could’ve been on a lot more.
The Autumn Internationals approach on the horizon though, and with a number of his back row rivals suffering with injury, and Navidi playing as well as ever, more caps could be on the horizon for the Dreads of Destruction. Let’s take a look why…
The Game Reader
Josh Navidi is almost the complete rugby player in terms of his pace, power and handling ability. Arguably his most impressive attribute however, is his rugby brain. Many players around the world would pay good money to see the game in the way Navidi does.
Three plays that could have been called for Navidi, had he not been on the defensive side on each occasion, and it’s not a coincidence that the flanker is there.
On the first clip he’s moving before the ball even goes over the lineout jumper, on the second he’s shifting direction to cover the kick before Duncan Weir pokes it through, and for the third clip he’s just nudging the Connacht flanker out the way to be in the right position to steal the offload.
Add in his mobility to get into the right positions and he’s a very difficult opponent to get around.
What is most impressive though is not just that he reads the game to make the plays, it’s what he does after them. After intercepting the offload he doesn’t just take the contact, his head is up to allow Rhun Williams to counter-attack, and after taking the defensive lineout he makes 20 metres to take the team well out of trouble.
His reading of the game can also lead to situations like this, turning defence into serious attack, and that leads me onto the second part of his game this season…
Now one version of this title might be best known for it’s soundtrack, but this particular bodyguard is best known for his dreadlocks, and this season Josh Navidi has made that position as second or third man in the defensive line his own.
Slotting into this position in Shaun Edwards’ system is no mean feat, with the flanker in this position having to read the attacking system and assess whether to spot blitz the first receiver, or drift across and prepare to his the breakdown outside him.
Two occasions in the Leinster game where from either second or third man in the defensive line Navidi is able to blitz and put a hit on the ball carrier that either kills the attack or slows it down sufficiently.
To have a player like Navidi in this position is invaluable as his mobility means that the inside shoulder isn’t as exposed on the blitz, with another player maybe not getting the hand on the attacker in the second clip that holds him up enough for the tackle to be put in.
His own tackling stats are also impeccable, with the crowning glory being Connacht away, where Navidi made 28 tackles without missing one.
The second part of the bodyguard role in this defensive system is to work on breakdowns in the wider channels when the ball goes past the opposition first receiver.
This goes back to Navidi’s reading of the game, and when to hit a breakdown. On this occasion he’s spot on, tracking the game across the field and getting in over the ball to significantly slow the Connacht attack down.
That ability to get over the ball comes back to being a natural openside, where Navidi has found himself returning over the last few weeks, and despite taking a game or two to recover his positional sense, those basic breakdown skills haven’t gone anywhere.
Two textbook body positions for the jackal, providing a real sturdy base to attack the ball and making it impossible for two opposition players to clear him out in both clips.
When you combine the position in the defensive line, tackling ability and jackal position, you end up with the complete back-rower.
Josh Navidi blitzes from bodyguard, makes the hit and gets over the ball. Although he isn’t able to secure the turnover, there is no chance of quick ball for Edinburgh, and Cardiff Blues have only committed one man to the breakdown. Invaluable.
Of course in the last three years Navidi has expanded his positional portfolio to the point where many would now say his best position is actually number eight, rather than his natural openside berth.
The reason for that has been the aforementioned tackling ability, combined with a surprising ability to make the hard yards with ball in hand.
Just like in the clip earlier when taking the Glasgow lineout overthrow in Cardiff Blues’ 22, in both of these clips he makes metres when realistically he has no right to.
This is where the surprising aspect of his carrying comes in as he’s not an atypically imposing man stature wise like other number eights around the world. Leaving a man mountain like Nick Williams aside, if you think of Taulupe Faletau, Billy Vunipola or Kieran Read, they aren’t exactly small blokes.
What Navidi has is an underestimated amount of raw power, combined with the speed, agility and footwork of a centre.
Getting back to his first, as in the first clip, and staying on his feet, as in the second, makes him a very difficult man to stop, and a go-to carrier for Cardiff Blues. It also solves the exit strategy for the coaches, ‘pass to Navidi’.
In attack, Navidi combines his carrying ability with the rugby intelligence to hit some excellent lines.
Both times his reading of the game allows Navidi to accelerate towards a hole in the opposition defence and, although he is caught by the covering defenders on both occasions, it sets up quick, front-foot attacking ball to play from.
Just when you think Josh Navidi’s talents are coming to an end, it also turns out he’s a very effective weapon in maul defence. He’s becoming that kid at school who is good at everything…
On both occasions Navidi is straight through the middle of the maul, latches on to the ball carrier, and secures the turnover in a textbook piece of maul swimming. In an area that the team as a whole is relatively weak, he is a shining light in not allowing teams to use this tactic against us.
Oh, and he can kick off his left foot.
All in all, Josh Navidi is massively critical to this Cardiff Blues team, and will only get more invaluable over the next few years.
With those 145 appearances, despite being only 26, he is one of the senior players in the squad, but still has some of his best years ahead. That sort of experience will be crucial as we move to developing our own young players around a core of players like Navidi.
If the ‘in-between seasons’, until the new stadium revenue comes in, in whatever guise that may be, are to be a success, then it will be due to the performances of players like Josh Navidi.
One thing is for sure, a Wales call-up would be thoroughly deserved for the Dreads of Destruction.