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Rugby

14th Jun 2023

Josh van der Flier flourishing under added hype and expectation was one of the season’s best stories

Patrick McCarry

Josh van der Flier

From July 9th 2022 until May 13th 2023, it was starting to look ridiculous – 21 straight wins and 11 tries scored in the process.

Back in 2016, at Carton House, Josh van der Flier had the same thoughts as Brian O’Driscoll had during his first senior call-up, 17 years before.

“You were a youngster at the time and I think you were kind of in awe of the whole setup,” former Ireland teammate Andrew Trimble once shared with him.

“I just remember you going over to the breakfast bar and I think you turned to Johnny [Sexton] and said, ‘Can we eat whatever we want?’ There was another moment when you were in the swimming pool and there was that little machine where you stick your togs in and it dries your togs and this blew your mind.”

From greenhorn squad member to, soon enough, a regular presence, the Wicklow native played 55 minutes off the bench, just nine months later, as he helped Ireland to their first ever Test win over the All Blacks, at Soldier Field. Two years later, he started at Aviva Stadium as Ireland repeated that dose against New Zealand. He spoke with us on House of Rugby soon after that 2018 victory and was humble as you can get.

“To be honest, I wasn’t even meant to be [playing]. Well, I was on the bench. I’m sure Dan [Leavy] would’ve done a better job than me… It was nice to be involved in two games like that and I suppose I’m just lucky and blessed to get to be involved in those two games – I didn’t do too much in either of them but good to be involved in a win.”

That, to this day, has been Josh van der Flier. One of the nicest guys in Irish rugby and still taken aback when someone wants to stop him in the street or say more than hello.

2022 was the year when everything came together for the flanker. He had been stung by not holding down a regular Ireland spot, around the time Will Connors was flying, and he went back to Leinster, looked at all the other back rows and tried to incorporate their strengths into his own game.

He won Irish Players’ Player, EPCR Player and World Rugby Player of the Year awards. At 29 he had reached his sporting peak, but his speech at those World Rugby awards showed the previous year had not changed him one iota.

Josh van der Flier

Red alert for the red scrump cap

Josh van der Flier may not have changed, in terms of his character and work-rate, but he had significantly altered his game.

As well as the line-speed and tempo defence leader, and coming up with more than his share of turnovers, the flanker had added a new attacking element to his game. His ball-carrying and distribution skills started to massively improve. He was trying and sticking offloads and running more support lines. That leg dive on carries was earning him extra metres each time he took possession.

On top of that, he was now a try-scoring danger. In 2021/22, which included the tour to New Zealand, van der Flier scored 12 tries in 27 games (26 starts). In his previous four seasons, he had a total of seven tries.

The only thing about raising your head above the parapet so consistently, and well, is there is a greater chance of getting picked off. The greater the acclaim van der Flier had, and the more minutes of tape there was to study, the more teams focused on trying to counter his game changes and hobble him. He was getting doubled on more carries, he was finding running channels blocked and his space cramped. He had a target on him, as one of Leinster and Ireland’s key men.

And yet, to me, the season Josh van der Flier just finished was more impressive than when he picked up all the awards. He was a marked man and there were whole plays designed around nullifying his threat, and yet he was as effective as ever. He scored 10 tries in 22 appearances (20 starts) and went all the way up until May 13th without losing a game. 20-0 became 20-2 as Munster the La Rochelle ruined Leinster’s season.

In that URC semi-final – on as a first minute sub for the injured Connors – and the Champions Cup final, van der Flier was excellent. As good as he had been all season. And yet the defeats of his team meant he ended the club season empty-handed again, and the EPCR Player of the Year award went to Gregory Alldritt.

Dan Sheehan was named URC Player of the Year – prematurely announced, if you ask me – and Caelan Doris got Players’ Player of the Year. It is the fickle nature of team sport that the success or failure of the whole often reflects on the individual. Had Leinster scored that late try against the French side, he or Doris would have won the personal accolade. It was fitting, though, that it went to Alldritt as he was a talisman for that La Rochelle side.

I felt though, with this European season almost completely in the books, that van der Flier’s run should be noted. Him flourishing under all that added hype and expectation was one of the season’s best stories. He backed up a world’s best season with a world-class season.

There is another aspect to the Wicklow native’s career that will only become apparent in time, but could end up as the biggest injustice of all.

Josh van der FlierJosh van der Flier runs out for Ireland and (inset) applauds the Leinster fans. (Credit: Sportsfile)

Josh van der Flier and the Lions

If you where you are going to be in July 2025, you are doing a sight better than me. Than most of us.

Recent events have taught us there is too much going on, as this globe spins at 1,000 miles per hour, to confidently predict where most of us will be. It is safe to say, now, that the British & Irish Lions will tour Australia in [our] summer of 2025.

There is a chance that Josh van der Flier will end his rugby career having never played for the Lions. Imagine that.

In 2017 and 2021, he was measured for the Lions gear and posed for the Lions headshots, as many players from the ‘home nations’ are asked to do. In 2017, he was an outside shot. In 2021, he should have travelled. Warren Gatland name-checked him after the first snub, as unlucky to miss out, and admitted in 2022 that he had got his non-selection for the tour to South Africa wrong.

If you were picking a team to play the Wallabies on a Lions Tour right now, van der Flier would be in the back row. Caelan Doris would be in there too.

By 2025, though, the openside will be 32-years-old. Not too old at all, but the odds of Lions selection decrease with each passing year. On the 2013 Lions Tour to Australia, Jamie Heaslip (29) was the oldest of seven back rows selected. The only squad players older than 32 were Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell.

What may help van der Flier’s cause, in more ways than one, is Andy Farrell.

The Ireland head coach is favourite to lead the Lions in 2025, and he will know what his Irish players are capable of. Farrell is pretty much a shoo-in for the Lions gig but they might as well announce it if Ireland do wonders at the World Cup.

If van der Flier continues on with the run of ridiculous form he has shown since December 2020, he will be crucial in Ireland trying to win the Webb Ellis. He said as much in April, fresh from the Grand Slam, when he told Donald McRae, “I know for sure the next goal is to try to win the World Cup.”

If Ireland do, that fickle nature of team sport may tick favourably in his direction and he could win another World Rugby award.

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