Rugby Stats: Josh Van der Flier’s versatility keeps him out ahead of his rivals
The Leinster and Ireland openside has always been a quick learner in his career
Leinster’s Josh van der Flier scores a try against Lyon during a Heineken Champions Cup game at the RDS in January 2020. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
The American racing driver Bobby Unser once observed that “success is where preparation and opportunity meet”, a maxim that easily straddles many forms of sporting endeavour.
Josh van der Flier’s performance against the Exeter Chiefs in last weekend’s Champions Cup quarter-final earned rave reviews, rightly so as his individual contribution was a vital component in the Leinster’s success. Quite apart from physical prowess it also revealed character.
For the duration of his career in senior rugby – the openside flanker turns 28 later this month – Van der Flier has fought for playing space in the backrow going head-to-head in a ferociously contested and quality laden environment, provincially and nationally, stacked with some of the brightest talent irrespective of position.
He’s won 31 Ireland caps since making his debut in 2016 and made 93 appearances for Leinster (first game 2014) and during that time he’s consistently refined the way he plays depending on the requirements of disparate coaches. Drawing a line from his school days in Wesley College, he was never the biggest, didn’t carry the reputation of some of his peers but he was coachable, an important factor to supplement his talent.
He listened, learned and worked diligently. Mike Ruddock, who coached him at Ireland under-20 level, acknowledged Van der Flier’s work-rate and voracious tackle count but wanted a bit more of the mongrel in his play. Other coaches wanted him to add layers to his game right up to the present day.
Speaking to him recently he outlined some additional tweaks based on conversations with Ireland forwards coach Paul O’Connell. “Areas I need to grow really, rather than to change. There might be some slight technical changes, like in the maul they might want something slightly different from the seven and typically be the guy going on to the ball in the maul and taking the ball off the jumper.
“Paul want might want something slightly different than Simon [Easterby] did or small things like that you kind of adapt. Different areas are focused on by different coaches, so it’s kind of trying to fulfil their requests in that way, I guess.”
One other hugely important remit was to carry more ball and that was very evident in his performance against Exeter, not just in volume but effectiveness; a willingness to straighten, use footwork, attract and commit multiple tacklers and provide his team with positive gainlines was as notable in some respects as the 22 tackles he chalked up.
Van der Flier’s defensive capabilities have never been in question, consistently excellent over a sustained period of time, so even though making 22 tackles at Sandy Park in a game that was choc-full of heavy collisions was a brilliant testament to those qualities, it’s a noted strength. He averaged 16 tackles across Leinster’s three matches in the tournament to date. A key going forward, in every sense of the phrase, is to expand that repertoire with the ball in hand.
In last season’s Champions Cup, the flanker made more tackles (98) than any other player up to the quarter-final stage of the tournament when Leinster met their demise at the hands of Saracens. He was joint top of the turnovers category (seven) at that point in the competition and came off a man-of-the-match performance in the previous week’s Pro 14 final win over Ulster.
Van der Flier also features prominently in a couple of statistical metrics in this season’s tournament, third behind Clermont Auvergne’s Fritz Lee in tackles (56, seven missed, four matches) and Scotland and Edinburgh openside Hamish Watson (50, three missed, three matches). Overall when factoring in tackles made and missed, Watson has a staggering completion rate of just over 94 per cent as against 89 per cent for Lee and Van der Flier.
The Leinster player is also prominent in turnovers won with four, behind Exeter’s Sam Simmonds (six), Lee (five) and Thomas Young (five). One of 15 nominees in the running for the Anthony Foley Memorial trophy awarded to the European Player of the Year, it represents a nice personal accolade but it won’t distract Van der Flier.
He’s always been surrounded by hugely talented flankers; Seán O’Brien, Jordi Murphy, Dan Leavy and more recently Will Connors and Scott Penny to highlight a few, illustrate just how hard he’s fought to maintain a presence at the front of the queue for the number seven jersey with Leinster, never mind Ireland.
Coaches demand that players evolve, hone skills and develop others, and when the opportunity is presented produce performances that justify selection. Van der Flier did exactly that at Sandy Park as did Ross Byrne and as did Rory O’Loughlin. It’s not as if they haven’t done it in the past but what will have pleased Leo Cullen is that the faith entrusted was repaid handsomely.