Josh van der Flier: Boy in red scrum cap breaks through
Ireland call-up highlights dramatic impact former Wesley schoolboy has made at Leinster
Leinster’s Josh van der Flier in action against Toulon. “Having those world-class players playing against you was very surreal. It was a big step up, even in tackling,” he says. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
The boy in the red scrum cap. Anoraks who religiously watch Wesley College in the Fr Godfrey and Vinnie Murray cup competitions will remember him. Bobby Byrne had also seen this smaller-than-the- usual backrower but didn’t recognise the blond-haired freshman who approached him on campus.
“It’s a great story,” Byrne, UCD’s director of rugby, remembers. “He came in under the radar, no scholarship. Just walked up to me with a video, saying, ‘I’m the guy with the red scrum cap.’ He was never a profile player in school but I had seen him playing against Gonzaga the year before so I could see the potential.”
People vaguely knew of this incessant scarlet blur with an exotic surname. Wicklow red. Wesley red. Joshua van der Flier (pronounced Fleer) is of Dutch grandparentage, via Finglas, before his parents settled in Wicklow town.
“My granddad on my mum’s side played Leinster under-21s. George Strong is from Kilkenny. My dad [Dirk] also played Leinster under-21s and with Wicklow rugby club. I started off there when I was five. I wasn’t allowed to play games because I was too young, it was under-8s so my dad just had me down training for a couple of years . . . I was very small even for my own age.”
There has always been better players in his position or at least better known players. The “profile” schoolboys were Conor Gilsenan and Jordan Coghlan from Clongowes Wood, the St Michael’s prodigy Dan Leavy and Blackrock’s first among equals, Jordi Murphy.
The deck was never stacked in van der Flier’s favour.
“I’d never really seen much of them play but you know the way the rumours go around about these unbelievable players. I think I played against Conor Gilsenan in first year. There’s no way he would remember. We never really played those schools.”
Coghlan joined Munster last summer in search of game time while Gilsenan went away to London Irish. Leavy wore number seven for Leinster A against Moseley last weekend in the B&I Cup. Murphy’s star has taken a nose dive since the World Cup quarter-final, and with Rhys Ruddock and Dominic Ryan almost exclusively blindsides, van der Flier is unquestionably an openside.
“I made the trials for Leinster schools in fourth and fifth year but I wasn’t good enough. In sixth year I got a trial and managed to do well enough to make the under-19s.”
He mentions the influence of Wesley coach Craig Petrie but it was Gerry Murphy and Noel McNamara who fixed him on the tearaway flank.
“He was always a seven to me, in the more classical mode,” says Mike Ruddock, his Ireland under-20s coach for two seasons. “Great engine, would always get through a huge amount of work in a game. Good pace, good football nous.
“Dan Leavy put a lot of pressure on him in year two. When I sat him down to review his performance, I said: ‘You hardly ever miss a tackle but we need a little more mongrel from you especially in over the ball to ensure you stay there.’”
Van der Flier embraces the old criticism as new. “To be honest with you, it’s something that I am still working on; the breakdown is an area you can always be better at, unless you reach the Richie McCaw, David Pocock standard.
“That’s the biggest area of work-ons for me, so Mike’s right there.”
Ignore the humility; his breakdown work, his tackling, his game intelligence and durability earned the 22-year-old a call-up to Joe Schmidt’s Six Nations squad last Wednesday.
There was a neat symmetry to it all. He was walking the halls of Wesley College when news broke. He called home. Some conversation to have with your dad. Nothing new to Dirk van der Flier though. On leaving Wesley, there was a reminder on the walls that he’s not the first van der Flier from Wesley College to represent Ireland. That honour belongs to his sister Julie, the Irish cricketer.
He returned to his alma mater for a jersey presentation to instantly inspired senior cup team players before they vanquished Skerries to qualify for the Leinster Schools Cup proper.
That, once upon a time, was him. The boy in the red scrum cap resisting the irrepressible wave of bigger backrowers. As it was again last December when Gilsenan, Coghlan, Leavy were replaced by Duane Vermeulen, Mamuka Gorgodze and Juan Smith; giants of world rugby smashing this unknown nuisance off their ball.
But wait. His breach into high-altitude performances became evident to UCD watchers on a brisk Saturday afternoon late in December 2014.
“We went up to Lakelands for a game last season when Terenure were going really well and Josh was absolutely outstanding,” says Byrne.
“It was obvious then that he was heading for the serious stuff. It was the number of involvements he had in that game. That’s more and more evident now, with and without the ball.”
This can be seen in any of his seven 80-minute games for Leinster this season. Or that 68-minute shift at Stade Felix Mayol. Toulon ground Leinster into the dirt on December 13th.
Van der Flier made the first of 19 match-leading tackles in the first minute.
“Having those world-class players playing against you was very surreal. It was a big step up, even in tackling. You fly in at [Vermeulen], line him up well and hit as hard as you can and expect him to go backwards but you almost bounce off. That was new to me.”
“It was tough. You don’t know how you would do at that level until you play against them, tackling those sort of players. Until you actually do it. I took a lot of confidence from that, yeah.”
He showed well, despite the Steffon Armitage masterclass in ruining opposition ball.
“I thought he was unbelievable in that game. Just in terms of being over the ball and ball-carrying. The biggest thing I took from him was how he got into position for poaches at our breakdown. I learned a lot from that.”
Re-watch his own contributions in the last eight minutes before Jordi Murphy arrived. This was after a punishing hour heading up the Ma’a Nonu welcoming party off Toulon lineouts.
The score was 16-9 when he beat Armitage to Ben Te’o’s grounded body. Next he twists Bastareaud’s torso off Leinster ball. Gets smashed by Smith at another ruck, yet instantly recovers to secure possession.
Grabs Armitage’s ankles as the English flanker peels off a maul deep in Leinster’s 22. Supports Tom Denton in a tackle before springing up and diving onto Toulon ball. “Hands away, ruck!” shouts Nigel Owens. He even tears Marty Moore’s arm away to avoid a penalty. Gets into the choke tackle on Drew Mitchell to earn a scrum. Breaks even in his latest tangle with Vermeulen off Jamie Heaslip’s carry. Toulon penalty makes it 19-9 but from the restart he gathers Devin Toner’s tap down.
He was relentless.
“Mostly first phase is what sets a seven apart from the other positions. If I am attacking, it is about securing the first ruck. Most of the time you are looking after the opposite backrow. If it’s their ball, you are looking at [tackling] Vermeulen or whoever off the back of the scrum.”
The immediate reward was a brief taste of the Carton House Ireland camp over Christmas. “It’s a completely different environment. There is a lot is thrown at you pretty quickly in terms of detail.”
With Chris Henry injured, he learned this week that O’Brien and Tommy O’Donnell are the opensides in his way. CJ Stander and Rhys Ruddock too. No one is going to let this kid glide into the Ireland squad to play Wales.
“It’s been a goal pretty much all my life to play for Ireland. But at the moment I’m just going to focus on training and playing as well as I can; try to learn the system, then if a cap comes with that it would be unbelievable.”
Vanquishing Bath last Saturday was a red letter day for Leinster’s academy graduates. Van der Flier added Francois Louw to his CV and Cullen left him on the field when O’Brien arrived in a tyrannical mood.
“Everyone was desperate to win it. From the talk at half-time you would think it was the semi-final of the European Cup.”
A culture change seems to have occurred at Leinster. A new way for a new generation. He blinks unknowingly at this suggestion.
“I wouldn’t have many experiences of other Leinster cultures. I can’t step back and say, well, we were doing this well when we won the European Cups because I wasn’t there.
“The winning culture and positive environment that Leo and the players have created this year is really, really good. I don’t know if it’s similar to what it was back in the day but I can’t imagine it being much better than it is now.”
Did you ever even play with Leo?
“Did I play with Leo . . . no, I didn’t. He was forwards coach by the time I made my debut.”
The fact he has to think about it proves the point. Cullen is not a former team-mate in the eyes of this regenerating squad. He is their coach.
And what of this red helmet?
“It matches the Wicklow gear, matches the Wesley gear. I started wearing it in secondary school.” Same one? “No, no, that fell apart! This is the second one. I kept wearing it because when I got Leinster trials people didn’t know who I was but they knew I wore the red scrum cap. It stays with you.
Getting rid of it
“Not that I’d be superstitious. If I started getting issues with refs, spotting me too easily, if I’m giving away too many penalties I’d have no problem getting rid of it.”
Richie McCaw wore a scrum cap for the first few years . . .
“I remember seeing him wearing it one game for the first half and then taking it off for the second half. I’d say it was because of the ref.
“I had to do it once at AIL. We were playing Mary’s and I’d given away a few penalties. It was getting a bit risky, yellow card territory, so I took it off.
“If I start finding there is a trend to it, there’s a couple of refs who have told me I need to ditch it so...”
Doesn’t matter anymore. We already see him for what he is and what he can become. The man in the red scrum cap no longer needs a calling card.