Analysis: The most underrated player in Wales?

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When you look back at the history of Cardiff Blues, cult heroes down the years have generally had something stand-out; either a playing trait or a personality characteristic that has endeared them to supporters at the Arms Park.

In my lifetime, Nicky Robinson had the left hand pass and King Kenny Dalglish as a father-in-law, Paul Tito’s mop of ginger hair and uncompromising physicality, Ben Blair’s clockwork kicking, Joao Tuculet’s Argentinian flair, Dan Fish being the most Kairdiiiiif man you’ll ever meet, Captain America Blaine Scully and Fa’ao Filise’s immense longevity, to name a few.

However, this last season another player has been bidding to add their name to the imaginary cult hero board in the clubhouse (which should definitely be a thing) who, and I absolutely don’t mean any offence with this, doesn’t have one obvious standout quality.

Instead, Josh Turnbull makes a very good case for being not only the hardest working member of the squad, but also the most complete rugby player that the Cardiff Blues have on their books at the moment.

The Cardiff Rugby Life 2017/18 Player of the Year has been a stand-out player this season, not only in terms of the level of his performances, but also in terms of the week-in, week-out consistency, as the 30-year-old made 30 appearances in all competitions.

He played in every single Guinness Pro14 game this season, missed just one European Challenge Cup fixture on the way to lifting the trophy in Bilbao, and altogether played 1855 minutes of rugby for Cardiff Blues, more than any other player in the squad.

Any player putting that level of commitment into the Cardiff Blues jersey, slotting in at second row, blindside flanker, openside flanker and number eight along the way, is bound to catch the eye of us on the terraces, but Turnbull also stakes his claim as a fan favourite in my book with his actual rugby ability.

Starting with the area of his game that has stood out in the back end of the season, and many were surprised when Josh Turnbull was selected ahead of Seb Davies to start against Edinburgh in the Challenge Cup quarter-final.

However, when you look at Josh Turnbull’s lineout calling and jumping work it all becomes very clear.

Gloucester Final Turnbull lineout 3

Kings lineout 1

Munster 18 Kirby Myhill lineout 3

From the camera angle in the second clip we can see that Josh Turnbull is the player calling the lineout move, and then in each clip he is the front jumper, a position he has nailed down at the Cardiff Blues set piece.

His athleticism means he has a terrific jump speed, perfect for a front jumper in an exit situation when securing the ball is key, and also when forming a driving maul as in the third clip, allowing the jumper to get down and act as a pillar before the opposition have formed up in defence.

Throughout the season Turnbull was imperious at the lineout, finishing joint-third in the Pro14 for lineout wins with 63, but in addition to that he was also a menace when the opposition were throwing in.

Gloucester Final Turnbull lineout 2

Pau QF Josh Turnbull lineout steal 1

Zebre A Josh Turnbull lineout steal

Operating at the back of the defensive lineout, and assisted by the clever tactics that sees Cardiff Blues often give up the front of a defensive lineout, Turnbull has been able to regularly disrupt the opposition with some clever reading of the throwing.

By positioning himself just in front of the opposition’s tail gunner, the athleticism and jump speed that is such an asset on our own ball sees him able to get off the floor and disrupt the opposition superbly.

This has been a huge positive to our game, particularly over the last few weeks, when we have avoided going up against some seriously big forward packs at a driving maul, and some very dangerous backlines on first phase ball.

Even if the opposition do get set up at the maul though, Turnbull has nailed down the title of ‘best maul swimmer’ at the Cardiff Blues.

Cheetahs maul defence 3

Ospreys 2018 maul turnover 1

Pau QF maul defence 4

By attacking the blindside of the opposition’s pillar, Turnbull has become an expert in getting to the ball carrier at the back of the call and latching on to him. As a result, they cannot wheel the maul how they would like in a bid to take out the initial defensive drive and get a shunt on down the field.

Crucially it also means that when the maul grinds to a halt, the opposition cannot get the ball out of the maul, and it’s a turnover for Cardiff Blues. That, along with the lineout steal, has been a major defensive weapon for us throughout the second half of the season.

Of course, the main aspect of our defensive game has been on the floor, and while the likes of Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi and Nick Williams have taken a lot of the headlines in that respect, there are a list of support staff who can take credit as well.

Leinster A Turnbull turnover

Kings Josh Turnbull turnover

Lyon A Josh Turnbull turnover

Josh Turnbull is absolutely one of those supporting players on the floor, popping up time and time again with important turnovers won at the breakdown.

The athleticism we saw at the lineout translates into this area of the game as well, as moving back from the gain line he is able to get around and over the ball carrier before the clearout comes in from the opposition.

Then it’s Turnbull’s big frame that can hold him in the jackal position, as we see in the first and third clips when Leinster and Lyon come with the pincer ruck clearout, but the flanker withstands two big men trying to shift him off the ball.

It’s not just in his own jackal work that he is a key part of our defensive play though, it’s the platform he lays on for others.

Glasgow defence 3 Halaholo turnover

Ospreys 2018 Olly Robinson turnover 1

Glasgow defence 1 Big Nick Turnover

There’s a reason I’ve referred to Josh Turnbull as the tackle machine a number of times this season, with the stats showing him making the fourth most hits in the Pro14, with 226, which averages over 10 a game.

Picking out select games, he made 26 tackles against Connacht away, 21 at Glasgow, 20 at Judgement day, and a whopping 30 tackles in the away win over Zebre.

It’s not just the quantity of tackles though, it’s the quality, or more specifically the technique. Turnbull’s ability to bring a player down early not only helps to kill any momentum they hoped to gain for the carry, but as in each clip above, offers a team-mate the chance to get over the ball.

This all forms part of the impressive ability Turnbull has to play his own game no matter what jersey he is wearing. Whether it’s 5, 6, 7 or 8, he tackles hard and is keen to get over the ball. That is why he is a crucial member of the squad, but it’s not just in defence he is an asset.

Edinburgh QF attacking breakdown 5

Zebre A Josh Turnbull carry

Kings Josh Turnbull try 2

In close quarters, Turnbull is a very effective carrier thanks in part to his physicality, but also due to his intelligence on the field.

The second clip is the awareness to break through some poor fringe defence, and then keep the leg drive going for a few extra yards and to stay alive long enough for support to reach, but it’s the first and third clips that I want to highlight.

Carrying does not have to always be about making yards, and in the style of play that Cardiff Blues have used this season, attacking has been all about tempo and momentum.

As in the first clip, Turnbull adopts a low body position into the contact, getting to ground quickly, and with team-mates in support the ball is recycled quickly for Tomos Williams to put Jarrod Evans onto the front foot.

That same body position is used close to the line in the third clip, and with excellent assistance from Josh Navidi, Turnbull is able to get over the line against the Kings.

Final analysis better attack 4

Pau QF good attack 6

Munster A Turnbull try

Turnbull’s athleticism also rears his head in the wide channels though, where he is a very effective player in terms of our attacking formation through phase play, and also on turnover ball.

Comfortable with ball in hand, he is able to link the play as flankers should in the wide channels, as well as back himself to get a sprint on and disciplined positionally to hold out wide and finish off the move for a try against Munster.

Josh Turnbull may not be the most obvious candidate for player of the year, or indeed a cult hero in the stands, but a player who works as hard as he does and has such a well rounded game will also be a top player in my eyes.

I would recommend every rugby team in the world has a Josh Turnbull, he is an invaluable member of the squad as a player and a leader, but we at Cardiff Blues will keep the real one!

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