What on earth has happened with Josh van der Flier? Even with that red cap he seems to be more prominent than ever. And it’s not just the voracious work ethic and effective tackle technique, or even his strength over the ball or handling skills. At 28 he’s now become a potent ball carrier.
There were signs of him adding a new string to his bow in Leinster's seasonal opener against the Bulls at the Aviva Stadium, where they return to face Bath this Saturday (kick-off 3.15pm) for their first Heineken Champions Cup game in front of a crowd since beating Lyon at the RDS in January 2020.
Like many of his Leinster teammates, van der Flier looked fitter than ever, scoring their first try of the campaign with that quick-footed finish from outside the 22.
A striking feature of Leinster’s running game this season has been the yards they’ve been making after contact, and in this, of late, van der Flier has taken his game to a new level.
Against Connacht last Friday he was the game's leading tackler with 20. Nothing especially new there. He also made a couple of offloads and was Leinster's leading player in two other categories, with eight 'successful' carries and five defenders beaten. Only the sensational Mack Hansen, whose figures were swelled by his counter-attacks and runs on the wing, bettered van der Flier.
In this, van der Flier continued where he left off against Argentina. In his last two games the openside has made 19 carries for 105 metres, beaten eight defenders and scored two tries.
Those are Jack Conan or Caelan Doris type figures, ie the stats of bigger men. At 6' 2" and 103kg, van der Flier is far from tiny, but by his own admission he had to take his cue from less powerfully built players.
“I remember when I was younger I used to always watch Conrad Smith because he wasn’t the biggest lad but the way he ran he was quite elusive,” van der Flier said of the former All Blacks centre, who was 6’ 1” and 95kg in his prime.
“You look at players like Bundee Aki, for example. I’ll never be that shape. He’s so chunky and strong. So I try and look at people who are similar to me.
"Ardie Savea is someone who is brilliant at it. I think a lot of the New Zealand players are always very good yards after contact; Sam Simmonds as well. There's a lot of players who do it well," van der Flier added, citing James Ryan and Doris also.
“I take different things from different people and then I try and visualize doing that myself and then hopefully it translates into training and games.”
Despite his innate modesty, Van der Flier can't help but admit he's been pleased with his game of late, and especially his carrying. Andy Farrell had told van der Flier last season to improve this aspect of his game, and the Irish coach also suggested another factor at play after the player's three Autumn Series performances.
"I think something clicked with Josh when Will Connors was coming onto the scene."
Along with a seemingly insatiable desire to constantly seek improvements in his game, van der Flier clearly has a sponge-like willingness to soak up information.
Hugh Hogan and his successor as Leinster skills coach, Denis Leamy, have played a significant role.
“There’s so many different people you take different things from. Leams (Denis Leamy), Hugh (Hogan), I’ve had extensive chats with both of them around different ways of carrying and I’ve tried to vary it up a bit as well.
"I think that's one thing that's really helped me on a practical level. I remember speaking with Fogs, John Fogarty, along similar lines - like sometimes running at gaps, sometimes running at the person, sometimes carrying low and having a bit of variety and then it becomes harder to defend.
“That’s something I’ve tried to do because I think if you do the same thing the whole time teams just watch it and they know exactly what you’re going to do. So just trying to change it up is another challenge as well that I try and add in.”
With this additional variety to his running game, van der Flier can also now rely more on instinct than before.
“I used to think so much during games - I still think during games obviously - but I try to practice it in training or visualise carrying. If someone shoots maybe I step inside or I go straight into them or I go for the gap, that kind of thing.
“Then during a game I just try and relax, and carry, and react to whatever I see in front of me, try not to think about it too much because sometimes I was guilty of over thinking I guess and then your decision isn’t quick. That’s the way I’ve kind of been approaching it.”
It’s evidently working.