Influential Van der Flier proves a real thorn in Toulouse’s side
Flanker’s intelligence on both sides of the ball a telling factor in Leinster’s victory
Leinster’s Josh van der Flier tackles Toulouse’s Yoann Huget during the Champions Cup clash at the RDS. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
In the hurly-burly of a match it can be difficult to remain emotionally detached, casting a dispassionate eye over every contact point, collision, tackle and ruck, all the while calculating the percentages and deciding on the right moment to intervene.
Josh van der Flier possesses the beady eye of a scavenger, the ball an unattended carcass; it’s a cherished attribute for any openside flanker.
His bobbing red scrumcap appeared to be omnipresent, whether coursing Toulouse players over the RDS turf, being part of the protection detail at the breakdown, or on hand to take passes or offloads from team-mates.
That was the perception but it doesn’t fully do justice to or properly illustrate the intelligence or nuances that he brought to his role in Leinster’s Heineken Champions Cup victory over Toulouse that catapulted them to the top of the pool and ensures that they have reaffirmed control of their destiny in trying to make the knockout stages of the tournament.
Leinster’s pack won this match, all eight contributing handsomely and it would be hard to ascribe more value to one above another. Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong were thunderous in their carrying, Sean Cronin, a try scorer, produced the tackle of the match in rattling the fillings of Toulouse outhalf Thomas Ramos.
James Ryan and Scott Fardy grafted prodigiously, Rhys Ruddock had an outstanding game as captain and player while Jack Conan, another try scorer, was no less effective, particularly in using a combination of footwork and power to get over the gain-line, time and again.
And then there was van der Flier, a link between backs and forwards, standing sentinel in defence, filling in wherever required and right across the line. There were a couple of high-profile interventions. On three minutes, as Toulouse speed towards the threshold of the Leinster 22, he gets in over Sofiane Guitoune, survives the clearout, and despite being turned upside down, wins the turnover.
It was one of less than a handful that he contested over the 80-minutes, not because he wasn’t around, but because he was selective. The temptation to go after ruck ball as a kitten would chase silver paper can be irresistible but van der Flier’s discipline was impressive.
He recognised that in those moments that he could better serve his team elsewhere and more often than not that would include several positive actions across a variety of game disciplines. A classic illustration was just short of the halfway point in the opening 40 minutes when Leinster were cranking up the pressure inside the Toulouse 22.
The home side retained possession through 26 phases and van der Flier was involved on seven occasions during that passage of play that included carrying, clearing out and ensuring that Toulouse didn’t get a sniff of a turnover – it can appear a perfunctory remit at times – until their captain Julien Marchand managed to survive a clearout and earn a penalty.
The Leinster flanker enjoyed an even more pivotal moment soon after, Toulouse wing Cheslin Kolbe escaped through Leinster’s first line of defence, only to be collared from behind by a covering van der Flier.
His carrying and athleticism were highlighted in the build-up to Conan’s try that spanned the width of the pitch. It took two tacklers to stop him just short of the line in one corner but when Leinster moved the ball to Adam Byrne on the other touchline, van der Flier, twice cleared Toulouse players off the ball in successive rucks before his backrow buddy plunged over the line.
The 25-year-old van der Flier was also entrusted as the player who collected the ball from the jumpers on the Leinster throw to set up mauls, occasionally retaining possession as tail-gunner, or else feeding it back to Cronin. The two were involved in a training ground set play switch that came unstuck when Cronin could not find Rory O’Loughlin on a cutback run.
Van der Flier’s pace meant he generally popped up on the near side of the midfield defence when the French side was attacking but this was facilitated by his teammates, who performed the majority of the defensive graft on the fringes. He might had had a try too if Larmour had looked right, instead of veering left.
He was granted the freedom to roam in wider channels because Toulouse didn’t select a genuine openside flanker in the backrow, preferring the size of a secondrow, South African Rynhardt Elstadt, in the number seven jersey. Narrow in their orientation up front the French side prioritised bulk and ultimately came off second best.
Van der Flier’s intelligence on both sides of the ball stands out and it’s that clarity that was an important influence and gelling agent in the victory.