At the halfway point of The New Boys series for this summer you may well be thinking ‘hang on, Rory Thornton?! He’s not new!’, and you’d sort of be right.
The second row did play 19 times for Cardiff Blues last season across all competitions, but did so while on loan from the Ospreys. He has now signed permanently at the Arms Park so is included in a technicality.
However, I have also decided to include the 23-year-old to have a look at his 2018/19 season with us, which didn’t get off to a great start and drew some criticism from supporters, me included.
Thornton started the first five Guinness Pro14 games of the season, coming off the bench in two Heineken Champions Cup games during that time, but failed to make his mark in open play, or at the set piece, where he really should have added to our game.
He looked like a player who had been suffering with persistent injury problems over the previous two years, however, he spent some time out of the first team between November and January, even turning out for Cardiff RFC once, and came back to give a taste of what he can offer.
Defensively he has returned with a real fire in his belly, not so much in the sense that he bustles around the field making dominant tackle, like a Nick Williams, but in terms of the work that he gets through and the positions he is taking up on the field.
A theme throughout this is that Thornton, in all honesty, is not the second row we needed this summer. He’s not 120kgs and a brutal force physically, but what we saw during the second half last season was that he is discovering how to use his 6ft7 frame to benefit the team.
Having a wingspan similar to that of an Airbus A380 means Thornton can literally wrap up a ball carrier, denying them the ability to use their upper body to drive forward and making solo tackles on dangerous ball carriers.
Then, if the ball carrier is a tough upright, he can match the ability to use his wingspan with an ability to use his height, getting underneath the ball and holding opposition players in the air, securing turnovers as in both the below examples.
Having watched a number of games that Thornton featured in during the second half of the season, it’s clear that he’s become a key figure in defence, aside from the impact he’s actually having in the tackle area.
Taking up a position in the centre of the field, he’s more often than not found as the guard, the defender right at the fringe of the breakdown, organising the line outside him and leading the initial blitz.
Slotting in at this position phase-in, phase-out allows the likes of Olly Robinson, Nick Williams and Kris Dacey to move out to second or third man, putting them in prime position to get over the ball and win turnovers.
Of course where Thornton really comes into his own is at the lineout, and although the Cardiff Blues throw was not always solid, there were signs that improvement is beginning to creep in.
In terms of the calling, which Thornton seemed to be doing on the majority of occasions in the second half of the season, the lineout was getting there, although there was a tendency to rely on the throw to the front at times.
It’s important to remember that the forward pack has joined quite a bit over the last two years, and with a new forwards coach in place, developing a lineout system isn’t something that will happen overnight.
Until then Thornton in a real asset in securing ball at the set piece, and as the system continues to improve, his jumping will allows us to become more expansive in a shorter amount of time.
While clearly valuable at the lineout, where Thornton is doubling down on his worth to the attack is at the breakdown though. While stats for ruck visits are not readily available, it is clear just from watching him in the second half of last season that he does a lot of ball security work.
In a similar style to his tackling technique, his long wingspan makes the judo roll style clean easier as he can wrap up the jackal and take them off balance, resulting in them being unable to support their own bodyweight.
His height then lengthens the breakdown area, making it easier for the scum-half to get the ball away without coming under pressure from any defenders reaching over the tackle area.
As in defence he operates between the 10 metre tramlines, moving from breakdown to breakdown, allowing bigger ball carriers like Nick Williams and Kris Dacey to carry more often, and not killing space in the outside channels for the backs.
Now I’m not saying Rory Thornton is the answer to all our tight five problems, far from it, but it will be interesting to keep a keen eye on how he goes this season, with a solid four months of regular game time, that saw his form improving, behind him.
Couple that with the fact that Cardiff Blues have a lengthy pre-season programme coming up due to the World Cup and subsequent later start to the Pro14, and he’s got the chance to begin the campaign in arguably the best shape since he became a senior professional.
From there it’s up to the player to start to realise the potential that saw him highlighted as a player to watch at U20 level, earn him a Welsh cap and a National Dual Contract.