Analysis: The new boys – Rory Thornton

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The third in this summer’s series, after Dmitri Arhip and Jason Harries, comes a signing different than we’ve seen before at Cardiff Blues.

Rory Thornton has arrived at the Arms Park on a season-long loan from Ospreys with the intention of bolstering our second row ranks, giving the player much needed game time and taking some pressure off the wage bill at the Liberty Stadium.

There will no doubt be Cardiff Blues supporters concerned about a loan signing from a rival side who might not be interested in giving his all for the club, and without knowing Thornton it’s hard to speak about him as a person.

However, from a rugby player perspective everything on paper suggests the former Wales U20 captain should be very keen to make his mark in the capital.

We are now a year out from the Rugby World Cup, and with just a single cap to his name, Thornton knows that the only way he gets on the plane to Japan is to have a huge season with Cardiff Blues. Jumping the likes of Luke Charteris, Jake Ball, Cory Hill, parent club team-mate Adam Beard and new team-mate Seb Davies will be no mean feat.

Add into that the frustration of a 2018/19 campaign which saw him make just one Guinness Pro14 start way back in round one, then this should be a Rory Thornton with a determination to play well for us, but how does he do that?

Firstly, he continues to do the basics of good old-fashioned second row donkey work well.

Thornton carry 1Thornton carry 5Thornton carry 4

As a 6ft7, 18st man, Thornton does not lack size, and he uses it to good effect in his carrying. Having another option away from Nick Williams, Samu Manoa (analysis still coming soon!), Dmitri Arhip and Josh Navidi will continue to keep defences guessing.

Like Rey Lee-Lo, the second row has an uncanny ability to beat the first man with ball-in-hand, and can come off the fly-half as well as being a one-out runner in his own right.

Even without the ball he’s a key figure in attack though.

Thornton breakdown 4Thornton breakdown 1Thornton breakdown 2

Providing possession security by sticking your head in where it’s going to hurt is a key aspect of the old-fashioned lock, and assisted by a surprising turn of pace for a big man, Thornton can do that across the field.

With 18st not particularly heavy in the modern game, although that is changing slowly, you might think Thornton is more of a Damian Welch replacement to compliment George Earle, rather than compete with him for the enforcer role, but he brings a level of physciality above what we had at the Arms Park last season.

That edge will be critical against the big packs in the Heineken Cup, and if we’re going to compete for the play-offs in the Pro14, and it translates to his defensive game as well.

Thornton defence 1Thornton defence 5Thornton defence 7

As a defensive unit, the pride of Cardiff Blues is the amount of turnovers secured last season, largely due to the work over the ball by Ellis Jenkins, Nick Williams, Olly Robinson, Josh Navidi and Gethin Jenkins, amongst others.

What Thornton can add to that is a textbook ‘choke tackle’ which will still be legal as long as the intial hit is under the ball, and with his upper body strength he can then hold the ball carrier up and hope for a maul to be formed.

At the very worst, as with two of the clips above, the attack is slowed and the opposition fail to reach the gain line, sapping momentum from them and allowing his own defence to form up.

Where Thornton is like a replacement for the Cross Keys bound Damian Welch though will be in his lineout work.

Cardiff Blues supporters will remember being somewhat surprised by the team selection for the Challenge Cup quarter-final game against Edinburgh back at Easter, when Seb Davies dropped to the bench in favour of a George Earle and Josh Turnbull second row partnership.

The reason for that was simple – we needed a lineout caller, and only Turnbull could do it. Recruiting Thornton, who has called the throws for Ospreys despite playing most of his rugby down West aged 21 or 22, can solve that problem, and offers us a very good lineout jumper as well.

Thornton analysis 2Thornton analysis 3Thornton analysis 1

When it comes to setting up at the lineout, Thornton’s flexibility is clear to see, as he plots up in each of the three pods on both his own and the opposition’s throws.

In a set piece that includes Justin Tipuric, who has arguably the best jump speed in Wales, he is a key man on both sides of possession and a menace for the opposition for two reasons.

Thornton lineout 13Thornton lineout 6Thornton lineout 5

Despite showing that physical edge in his open field play, Thornton has the athletic ability to be a real attacking option at the back of the lineout, with particularly the third clip showing the advantage of a 6ft7 tail jumper who can offer good ball off the top of a lineout.

On a few too many occasions this season at Cardiff Blues we had to resort to throwing the ball to the front of the lineout just to secure possession, but with Thornton joining Josh Turnbull, Seb Davies, Macauley Cook and Josh Navidi as key jumpers, we will be able to develop our throwing game to utilise the attacking potential of a throw to the back.

Thornton lineout 9Thornton lineout 3Thornton lineout 12

Thornton also has the jump speed to line up as an option as the front jumper, particularly at a defensive lineout when securing possession at the front is the only objective before exiting.

His footwork is good enough to move forwards from the middle pod or backwards from the front pod, or just to outjump his opposite number from a standing start. This also translates to making Thornton a threat on the opposition throw.

Thornton lineout 1Thornton lineout 11Thornton lineout 8

If Thornton can get a run of games under his belt early in the season then his loan move stands to become a success for him, Cardiff Blues in the short-term, Ospreys in the long-term and for the Welsh national team on a general level.

The likes of Luke Charteris, Alun Wyn Jones and Bradley Davies are likely to see their careers winding down after Japan, so even if Thornton doesn’t make the World Cup squad next year, a full season of rugby at the Arms Park should put him in good stead to challenge for a second row berth at the 2023 competition.

Although the move isn’t a long-term solution for Cardiff Blues, in the circumstances of this summer it’s about as good of a move as we could have hoped for, and gives John Mulvihill the chance to spend a year looking for a more permanent second row option going forward.

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