‘He’s phenomenal’: Hard-working Josh van der Flier at top of his game

Seven-try forward enjoying his most prolific season to date for both Leinster and Ireland

He may not be the flashiest player in Irish rugby. His career has been built on a voracious work ethic, an uber professional attitude and the energy of a Duracell bunny. But it tells us much about Josh van der Flier that at 28 he's playing the best rugby of his career and now, more than ever, he is an integral part of both the Leinster and Ireland teams.

"At times he reminds me of the way that Keith Gleeson or Shane Jennings would have gone about their business; very understated but very impactful," Jamie Heaslip told The Irish Times this week.

“I don’t mean this in a bad way but the average person watching a game, I don’t think they understand the impact that Josh has, and what I mean by that is that more often than not you’re not going to see Josh do crazy line breaks, offloads, scoring loads of tries, being a big, marauding backrow.

“It’s kind of like [Thierry] Dusautoir,” adds Heaslip, and indeed the two are not dissimilarly built. Dusautoir is 6ft 2in and his fighting weight was 100kg. Van der Flier is 6ft 1in and 106.5kg.


“Josh is so efficient and so good at his role as an out-and-out ‘7’, that he makes everyone else look good and that’s a sign of an amazing player, a player that has no ego, a player that has the emotional intelligence not to have an ego take over and understand their role within the wider group. And I think that’s Josh.”

When van der Flier came into the Leinster squad, he made an immediate impression on Sean O’Brien as well.

“He has always been a very good trainer; incredibly, incredibly professional. He ticks every box that you want in an environment. Very sociable as well. Josh is a really good lad off the field, just having chats with people and being a really good squad player. Everyone likes Josh.

‘Hugely impressive’

“Rugby wise, he was small when he came in first. He’s worked on that element of his game and he has to keep working on it. I know he eats like an absolute horse to try and maintain weight, and he works incredibly hard in the gym to keep a bit of size on. He’s a hugely impressive individual to be fair.

“He’s a phenomenal athlete, quick and his engine and endurance is ridiculous. Josh is still able to sprint in the 80th minute. He has that natural running ability that’s incredible to have as a backrower, especially someone who gets through so much work like he does.

“And I think that’s what people don’t see, the amount of rucks he hits. They mightn’t be huge moments in the game but they’re massive for the team. So he’s become a very important figure in terms of energy around the environment and on the field. If you watch his game closely he leads the charts in mostly everything now.”

Heaslip is only half-joking when he makes the point that “if you haven’t scored a couple of tries for Leinster this season that’s disappointing”.

O’Brien concurs: “As a backrower in that Leinster team if you’re not scoring tries there is something wrong with you.”

Yet van der Flier’s assiduous work on his lines of running, timing, footwork and support trailers has yielded a dividend, for this has already been his most prolific season to date for both province and country. In 10 starts for Leinster and Ireland, he has scored seven tries so far, bookended by sharp, speedy finishes from outside the 22 against the Bulls and Bath.

“He’s popped up in the right places a lot of the time and that’s what you want from your ‘7’,” says O’Brien. “He’s had some unbelievable support lines but his carrying ability and his change-up on to the ball and his lines of running are phenomenal.

“Josh isn’t the biggest backrower but it’s his acceleration into contact that is making him gain a yard or break a tackle, so he’s added that to his game.”

For Heaslip, it also demonstrates how he knows the game plan inside out.

The rest of van der Flier’s overall stats for the season are remarkable: 11 games played (10 starts), 868 minutes, 83 carries, 285 metres gained, an eye-catching 16 defenders beaten, 47 passes, 183 tackles and seven turnovers won.

And, as Heaslip points out, that’s only part of the story.

“We don’t even get to see the metres that he covers in a game as well. There’s a lot of work he’d be chasing up as a ‘7’. As a ‘7’ off most line-outs and scrums, if the play goes to the other side of the field, he’s got to hit that ruck.

“The distance he’s covering just off doing stuff like that alone is insane, and then to keep offering up for the carry, as a link player, to hit rucks and clean out, and defensively what he brings as well.

“I think he really stamped himself out there with his defensive line speed and impact as well for teams. He sets the tone a lot when it comes to line speed particularly off set pieces.

“But behind the scenes as well there’s no ego around the kid. Never has been, and he’s quite keen to learn.

“You could argue that Josh maybe overthought things at times and maybe potentially got anxious around having to know roles inside out, and overstressing about knowing them. Sometimes guys overthink it a little bit too much.

“But it’s a double-edged sword, because he always knew his roles and never messed up his responsibilities.

“Also, he’s such a positive force around the team. Over the years, sometimes things went his way, sometimes things didn’t go his way, but he never went dark. He always stayed quite positive, very chirpy, very respectful, very happy, regardless of whatever monologue was going on internally and knowing Josh it probably wasn’t a bad internal monologue such is his really positive mindset.

“It’s not blind optimism but it is an optimistic, positive mindset.”

There was a prime example of that this week when van der Flier was asked for his memories of Ireland’s 2018 Grand Slam campaign, when he suffered a cruciate ligament injury before half-time in the opener in Paris which ruled him out for the remainder of the tournament.

Extraordinary endgame

“Well, I was given a medal anyway which was nice,” he recalled with a smile before recounting how he watched that extraordinary endgame and Johnny Sexton’s drop goal without fully appreciating the extent of his injury at the time. That is just so van der Flier.

O’Brien agrees with Heaslip that the presence of van der Flier helps Leinster and Ireland accommodate two ball-carrying “8s” alongside him in the backrow.

“They’re able to get on a lot more ball because he’s doing the unseen work. He has recently been on the end of some great stuff and he’s taken the plaudits but when they’re playing and carrying really well, he’s working around in the background.”

On the debit side, van der Flier probably doesn’t win as many turnovers or penalties in the jackal as a traditional “7”, although O’Brien has seen significant improvements there as well.

“It’s probably been his weakness I think over his career, not surviving in that area. It comes back to staying in that fight, but he’s worked on his game in picking and choosing his moments and being really smart. But when he’s in there now he’s hanging on and staying in the fight more, and he’s causing disruption in there, whereas when you look back two or three years ago he was just getting blown off the ball a lot.

“You also become a smarter player and Josh is a very smart guy anyway. He’s evolved his entire game a lot and it’s showing, and he’s becoming one of the most important players in both [Leinster and Ireland] of those teams.”

Such is the way van der Flier has strained every sinew to continually improve and become the player he is, that you wonder where he gets his unrelenting dedication.

“Good question,” he said this week, before pausing to give an answer. “I guess my parents have always been pretty hard working. I always looked up to my dad a huge amount.

“I thought it was just me who used to do it, but my dad was telling me the other day that back in the day when they’d be playing rugby and going for pints, that kind of thing, he might not have a drink because the next day he knew he’d have the edge over the other lad in training.

“So I think that’s probably in the blood a bit,” admitted van der Flier with a laugh.

But the dedication goes deeper still and on both sides of the family tree.

“My grandad [George Strong] on my mum’s side used to cycle from Waterford to Kilkenny to play for Kilkenny Rugby Club,” revealed van der Flier, which has to have been in excess of three hours.

“He won the Towns Cup with them. I suppose he’s a hard-working man as well so it has always been in the family.

“One thing that’s a part of it as well is that it’s always something I’ve wanted to do, play professional rugby. It’s something I’ve always really enjoyed as well, so it’s always been something I’ve always wanted to work hard for, I guess.”

It’s showing now more than ever.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times