Since rugby returned from the covid-19 pandemic last August there has been one constant in Cardiff and Welsh rugby; that Josh Turnbull has been the best player around.
Certainly at the Arms Park, pretty positively around the game in Wales and even in the Guinness Pro14 as a whole, there is very few, if any, who are able to evidence the consistently high performance levels as well as the leadership capability that the 33-year-old has displayed week-in, week-out during this campaign.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that at times during that October and November spell, when the internationals were away at the Autumn Nations Cup, he was almost single-handedly dragging us through games. Ulster – 21 tackles, Benetton – 14 tackles, Leinster – 26 tackles. It’s like having 16-men in defence because of his sheer workrate.
With Shane Lewis-Hughes, Josh Navidi and Sam Moore missing for large swathes of the campaign Turnbull has taken on responsibility as the primary carrier (123, 168m gained), while finishing with 215 tackles made at a 94% success rate and winning nine turnovers. Statistically it’s impossible to argue that his output is league leading.
Yet I have to make an admission, for quite a long time I’ve resisted the urge to call for him to be selected in the Wales squad. When it came to previewing Cardiff Blues prospects for the Six Nations squad, for example, I didn’t even include the big back rower, despite at the time having more of a shout than Dan Lydiate in my eyes.
The reason for that is I firmly believe Wayne Pivac should have been using the last two squad selections, and this upcoming selection, starting to change the guard towards the 2023 Rugby World Cup. The amount of quality young talent we have in Wales is massively exciting at the moment, and the sooner they are exposed to that top level and slot into Pivac’s style of play the better.
You only need to look at France, who went down that road immediately following the conclusion of the 2019 edition of the World Cup, and now have a core nucleus of players in their mid-20s with 20+ caps, competing for the Six Nations year-in and year-out, and only getting better as their home tournament approaches in two years.
However, while I maintain that should be the focus for this summer’s Wales squad as they prepare to take on Canada and Argentina, what I have also come to realise is that a selection like Josh Turnbull is exactly what the overarching aim of the national team should be; selecting the best Welsh players at any given point in time.
At some level selection strategy and continuity is important, but the feeling for professional players in Wales that if they are playing well that they will be rewarded with a call-up to the national team is key to driving standards within Wayne Pivac’s set up but also around the four pro sides. The risk is that if players feel like they can’t break into an established national squad then their club performances will suffer.
On a Turnbull-only level he also offers that experience and leadership to replace the likes of Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau and Dan Biggar away with the British and Irish Lions. You won’t find a player who doesn’t talk highly of his influence on a squad, both on an inter-personal level, but also his understanding of the game. It will be no surprise when he becomes a top coach following his playing career.
Of course the back row is mightily competitive in Wales, but with the aforementioned Faletau missing, Shane Lewis-Hughes and Dan Lydiate both injured, ongoing fitness concerns for Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler, and Turnbull comfortably out-performing Ross Moriarty at present, the Cardiff captain should be in prime position to act as the physical enforcer that Pivac enjoys utilising at blindside flanker.
It would be no less than Josh Turnbull deserves for what has been a simply stunning year of rugby.