Fast learner Josh van der Flier hitting the rucks early and often for Ireland

Leinster flanker is flourishing in the step up to the Six Nations stage

Amid all the misplaced critiques surrounding Joe Schmidt's supposedly conservative selections, it's no wonder the head coach has elevated Josh van der Flier above older and more experienced players such as Tommy O'Donnell and Chris Henry to the Ireland team.

Utterly unassuming and dedicated, and with the battery life of a Duracell bunny on speed, not only will van der Flier do what’s asked of him but the 22-year-old will do it all day long.

This explains a rather remarkable statistic from Ireland’s win over Italy last Saturday. Van der Flier hit 37 rucks. Okay, hitting them is one thing, but he was, critically, the first or second man in for around 20 of them, which is reflective of the openside’s work-rate and energy.

Ireland recycled 98 per cent of their rucks last Saturday, which is also typical of Schmidt’s team and, admittedly, also reflects Italy’s lack of presence at the breakdown. The ensuing speed of Ireland’s ruck ball was also central to the high tempo which yielded 20 line breaks and nine tries.


In any event, Schmidt no doubt loves the openside’s selfless contribution, and clearly van der Flier himself loves hitting rucks. “Yeah, I do enjoy it. It’s good fun,” he said yesterday at the squad’s Carton House base with a laugh. “It just always seems that I end up with a high amount of rucks after games.”


Hitting them is one thing, effectiveness is another. It was van der Flier’s clear-out which RTÉ panellists highlighted in the last ruck before Jack McGrath’s try, which was also the case for Andrew Trimble’s try, while he also helped to drive Jamie Heaslip over for his second try.

Training and playing with Ireland is further improving his technique. “Hitting past the ball is something we’re trying to work on, Tommy [O’Donnell] and all the lads have been giving me tips that you need for international rugby. It’s tiny things in hitting a ruck really well that can make the difference.”

“At international level what I’ve noticed is even the tiniest little movement by them you need to hit them slightly different because when you come across those poachers over the ball, then you need to hit them right. Now with the neck roll stuff that the refs are really pushing on it’s even more important to get it right.”

Just two caps into his Test career, and with only a dozen Leinster starts to this name, admittedly van der Flier has accumulated invaluable game time with the Irish Under-20s, UCD in the Ulster Bank League and the Leinster As. But growing into his frame more, van der Flier can only improve technically with more experience.

“I’m working on it constantly. I’m still learning and I’ve a lot to improve on when it comes to rucking and the breakdown area. So I’m just trying to learn as I go along and constantly improve.”

Good hands

Of course, there’s more to his game than clearing out. What’s impressed has been the way he’s accelerated onto the ball, while there’s been evidence of his good hands and support play, he readily accepts that he could have made more impact on the opposition rucks to date.

A product first of Wesley College and the Leinster academy, aside from reflecting his upbringing and personality, van der Flier's work ethic has been stoked by the professionalism of his Leinster surrounds.

"When you see players like Johnny Sexton and Jamie Heaslip, they're probably the best at it, being really, really professional. You see them performing on the weekend, it just motivates you to try. I wouldn't be at all at their level in terms of preparation and stuff, but I'm trying to get there."

He describes being amongst this Irish environment as “surreal” and there are stories of his starry-eyed description of life in Carton House and the Shelbourne Hotel. But he’s also devoted to his job and readily acknowledges the Scots will be an altogether different proposition, not least in the area where he specialises.

“They’re traditionally pretty good at the breakdown and we’ve seen throughout the tournament so far how good they’ve been at the breakdown. So it’s going to be a much bigger challenge than Italy. They especially like to put pressure on our ball to disrupt our play so it’s definitely going to be a big task on our hands this weekend.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times