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Don't give up the fight By Owain Jones

As a baby, Josh Turnbull was always the apple of his mother’s eye. When parading her young son around Newcastle Emlyn, Jane, like most proud young parents, must have hoped her son’s cherubic good looks would remain unblemished. A sensible job as a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant beckoned.

Sadly, his mother’s wishes have not quite gone according to plan. 

After 14 years at the coal face of professional rugby, the popular Cardiff Rugby back row has a list of war wounds that would make a Vietnam veteran wince. “I’ve lost count of the amount of stitches I’ve had on my face. I’ve had both of my bottom front teeth root-filled, one of the top ones, a back operation, both my shoulders operated on, big toe operated on twice and my fingers broken multiple times,” he says with a chuckle. “Oh, and I’ve broken my ankle. There will be quite a list when I hang up my boots.”

Yes, any thoughts of a genteel vocation were soon cast aside for Turnbull, who grew to a strapping 6ft 4in by his teens. He dabbled in other sports to telling effect, representing his country in the javelin and the 400metres hurdles to show off his athletic prowess, but growing up in a town with a population of 1200 that can lay claim four Welsh internationals, including Gareth Davies, Scott Williams and new Welsh cap Gareth Thomas, rugby was always going to seduce this rambunctious, gregarious child.

Josh Turnbull
Josh Turnbull takes some attention to a facial wound against Canada (Photo by Ian Cook – via Getty Images)

Unusually for the rugby hotbed, both parents were latecomers to the national sport and left their strapping son to make his own decisions, without ever forcing the issue. “My mum is from Durham and moved down here when she was 18 and dad moved down here from Cambridge when he was 20, so I come from a non-rugby background, I suppose but they’re rugby mad round here and since I picked up a ball at seven, there’s been no looking back,” he says.

From there, Turnbull skipped over every hurdle in front of him as he sailed through the Newcastle Emlyn youth team to the first XV and, at 16, the Scarlets Academy. It was a pre-ordained path for a boy who ate, drank and slept sport. “I always wanted to be involved in sport but it was only when I was selected for the Wales Under-18s that there was a realisation I could actually make it a profession. You follow your nutrition plan, follow your weights programme and soon it becomes second nature. Before you know it, you’re 19 or 20 and playing in the Junior World Cups and getting your first taste of senior rugby with the Scarlets,” he says.

As I’ve got older, I’ve invested in myself. I have a hot-tub outside, a Watt bike and I’ve invested in a gym in my garage just to keep the body ticking over.

Now very much an elder statesman of the regional scene, the life as a professional sportsman is second nature to the affable West Walian, but he hasn’t always worn the halo of an elite athlete. “When I was a lot younger, I’d play a game, go out with my mates after and enjoy a few pints and not think nothing of it but, as I’ve I crept towards my thirties, I’ve realised you probably have to be a bit more streetwise in how you look after myself, especially in the 24-48 hours after the game,” says Turnbull.

The pints have been replaced by protein shakes and rest and recuperation have replaced living in the fast lane. “As I’ve got older, I’ve invested in myself. I have a hot-tub outside, a Watt bike and I’ve invested in a gym in my garage just to keep the body ticking over,” he says. “During lockdown I was running 5k every day and, looking back, the pandemic was the best thing that could have happened to my body. Speaking to the boys, they couldn’t remember a period where they’d had a break longer than six weeks. It allowed the body to recover and have a mental break.”

The downtime showed for Turnbull, who enjoyed career-best form for a Cardiff Rugby side and led to him getting a squad recall three years after his last cap against Argentina in 2018, his opponents this weekend.

Josh Turnbull
Josh Turnbull has been in outstanding for this season for Cardiff Rugby (Photo By Piaras Ó Mídheach/ Getty Images)

At 33, it’s something of a feelgood story, similar to Dan Lydiate’s Six Nations recall, and a reminder that you should never give up on your dream if you put in enough graft. 

After more than 250 regional appearances, news of his recall brought smiles to the faces of his long-time friends in the game from all the regions. “Rugby in South Wales is small enough that the M4 corridor can be done in an hour so I have friends all over. I’m close to people like Ken (Owens) and Jake (Ball) before he left. They were both really down-to-earth guys. I nip down West regularly and live in Cross Hands, where mine and Ken’s kids are in the same primary school together,” he says.

“At the Blues, Josh Navidi is my roomie and Ellis (Jenkins) is someone I consider a close friend. Then you’ve got guys like Lloyd Williams, Scott Andrews and Kristian Dacey who are coffee shop regulars. I can’t complain with life.” 

He is particularly pleased for Navidi, who got his Lions call-up on the way back from Wales’ conditioning camp. “It’s funny, Josh was saying to me, ‘Oh, I haven’t got much planned, I’m going to chill out’ but then he got the call,” says Turnbull.

“I texted him straight away and said, ‘Well done, brother’ and he replied that he’d phoned his girlfriend who was on a night out and had burst into tears. Then he couldn’t find his passport. Judging by his performance in the week, he found it in the end!”

In a Welsh squad that has a glut of youngsters like Ben Carter, Aneurin Owen, Taine Basham and Ben Thomas, who are not long out of their teens, does the fact he was playing professional when they were barely out of nappies concern him?

Josh Turnbull
Josh Turnbull celebrates a win over England in 2011 with George North and Shane Williams (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

“Age is just a number to me. It’s about how well you’re playing on the field and I actually quite enjoy being around the youngsters,” he says. “Ben Carter and Morgan Jones are big lumps and just go about their business in a professional manner. I was chat away with all the old heads when I was young, looking for knowledge. I’d sponge up information from guys like David Lyons and Easters (Simon Easterby). Now, if youngsters tap on my shoulder, asking for help, I’ll happily give them advice. I genuinely go to work with a smile on my face.”

That upbeat attitude has endeared Turnbull to a succession of coaches over the years and his versatility has seen him fill any of the back-five positions in the scrum without complaint. For that reason, Turnbull came on in the second half of the Canada game at lock, where he put in a typically industrious display while picking up a customary facial wound. 

“When I was younger, I was a bit headstrong and wanted to be seen solely as a No6 but in the last four or five years, my attitude has been, ‘Let’s get a starting jersey on my back, get out there and enjoy it’,” he says. “If coaches turn round to me and say, ‘So and so has had a bump, we need you to do a job at lock’, I’ve stuck my head in there. I’ll do what’s needed for the team.”

My two girls, Eden and Ivy, don’t know what’s got into me and say, ‘Dad, what have you done to your hair?’ Melon (Gethin Jenkins) even sidled up to me the other day and said, ‘You’re having a mid-life crisis, aren’t you?’ 

Turnbull on his new hair-do

In the past year, there has been no missing Turnbull as he has been sporting a peroxide-blond head of hair. Some will automatically think of Gazza or Phil Foden, but is Turnbull modelling himself on Aaron Ramsey, circa 2016? 

“When I got a red card in the first game of the season against Zebre, the rule in camp was that I had to roll the dice for my punishment. I had a choice; shave it off or dye it. I wasn’t sure if it would grow back at my age so I went for the latter,” he says. “Jess, my missus, actually quite likes it and thinks it’s a lucky charm because I had such a good season, and it’s growing on me. My two girls, Eden and Ivy, don’t know what’s got into me and say, ‘Dad, what have you done to your hair?’ Melon (Gethin Jenkins) even sidled up to me the other day and said, ‘You’re having a mid-life crisis, aren’t you?’ 

Josh Turnbull
Turnbull celebrates the Challenge Cup win over Gloucester in 2018 with Cardiff (Photo By Brendan Moran/Getty Images)

Turnbull has enjoyed working under Wayne Pivac in recent weeks, having left his home region two years before he took over. “I’m still quite friendly with all the Scarlets boys so when Wayne took over, I could see how he managed them and it was different to what they’d had before but after three years they’d won a league title playing brilliant rugby. He knows what wants and he’s extremely vocal,” he says.

The eye-catching blond bonce should enter the fray at some point in the proceedings for Turnbull to win his 12th Test cap. It begs the question, should a player with such consistency and obvious athletic talents have had more caps over his long career? 

I’m thrilled to have had another opportunity to pull on a red shirt. It’s the icing on the cake after a great season for me,

“Funnily enough, I was having this conversation the other day. The competition is always white hot in the back row,” he says. “When I first broke through, you had Ryan Jones, Andy Powell, Martyn Williams, Jon Thomas… three out of four were Lions. Then it was Warby (Sam Warburton), Tips (Justin Tipuric), Taulupe (Faletau) and Lyds (Dan Lydiate). Another four Lions. Timing is a big thing in national selection and you have to be playing out of your skin in Wales.”

As for guiding Wales’ next generation to a successful summer, with the formidable Pumas up next, Turnbull is old enough and wise enough not to get ahead of himself. 

“Listen, I’m thrilled to have had another opportunity to pull on a red shirt. It’s the icing on the cake after a great season for me,” he says. “You are representing family, friends and more than 3 million proud countrymen. I’ll take everything I can from the experience, learn from it, then move on to next season helping Dai (Young) and the boys.”

Like a modern-day Steve Austin, Turnbull’s bionic body may be held together by sticky tape and plaster but his spirit remains undimmed. 

Roll on season No15.

More stories from Owain Jones

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