When you’re asked to name some of the best openside flankers in the world, a few obvious names come to mind: Michael Hooper, Siya Kolisi, Tom Curry. These are all back-row forwards who fit the job description perfectly: strong over the ball, solid ball carriers, speedy around the park and good leaders. There is one name, though, who seems to often fly under everyone’s nose.
Ireland’s Josh van der Flier is the sort of player non-Irish viewers look at week in, week out and think “wow, he’s been the best player on the park”, then instantly forget about it after the final whistle. He rarely gets mentioned in lists of the best rugby players on the planet, such is the subtlety to his work.
Of course, individual praise is not what he seeks – he plays for Leinster and Ireland, meaning his job is not to be flashy, but instead to be an efficient cog in an extremely well-oiled machine. Leinster haven’t lost a title since around 1060 B.C., meaning it’s impossible to be the isolated stand-out player, but van der Flier plays a crucial role in helping Leo Cullen’s men win their big matches. Let’s have a look at the various crucial aspects of his game; the ones that propel his status from “decent team member” to “world-class flanker”.
This first example may not look particularly pretty, but it’s pretty important in big games – the hard yards. The flanker has scored a hatful of tries for Leinster recently, but instead, we’re going to look at a subtler carry, rather than a sample of him just being big and strong. This clip is from the 11th minute of Ireland’s win over Wales earlier this year.
We all know that Josh van der Flier has really improved his ball carrying recently. But why? It’s not only his core strength, but also his spatial awareness.
Here, van der Flier (in his red scrum-cap) breaks Ireland’s 1-3-2-2 structure and fades around the ruck late, anticipating Wales flagging on Adam Beard’s inside, which is exactly where the Leinsterman attacks. He runs square on Johnny Sexton’s inside and takes the pass.
He makes a half-break and sees 77kg scrum-half Tomos Williams in front of him. Naturally, any back-row forward would love a 1v1 carry against the lightest player on the pitch, so he instinctively arcs to the outside in the hope of an arm-tackle by Williams.
Williams makes a passive chop tackle, just about pulling the Irishman to deck. As soon as his knee hits the floor, van der Flier consciously propels himself forward to make it look like his momentum has carried him even further. Seems feasible with such a dominant carry, right?
Once his momentum stops him, he uses his one placement of the ball. He doesn’t need to roll to gain extra meters, but rather flail his limbs a little, so it doesn’t look like he’s stealing any extra yards. For what looks like such a simple carry, van der Flier stopped 12 metres further forward than where he started, and more importantly, this is a sub-three second ruck.
Wales’ retreating defence are caught offside instantly and are rightfully penalised. Van der Flier’s groundwork gifted his team a shot at three points here, which makes a huge difference at the top level.
The following example is a try that van der Flier virtually creates without touching the ball, in the 20th minute of Leinster’s recent quarter-final against Leicester Tigers.
Van der Flier lingers to the right-hand side of the breakdown as Jack Conan is about to carry. He tilts his head and spots Leicester’s Ellis Genge is about to make the next tackle.
As Genge makes the tackle, van der Flier joins as a latch. He isn’t propelling his own man forward, but instead tackling Genge. He subtly grabs Genge’s arm and leg, meaning there is no threat to the ball, plus making it a passive tackle.
Conan drops to the floor two yards short of the try-line. At this stage, the referee will be looking out for Leicester infringements: Genge rolling away and Tommy Reffell’s hands in the ruck. With this in mind, van der Flier drops straight to his knees – he was a part of the tackle and therefore isn’t at risk of being penalised, while trapping Genge in the ruck and narrowing Reffell’s gate of entry.
On the following phase, Tadhg Furlong carries, but is hit by a dominant tackle. Leinster’s #7 uses this to his advantage.
Once again, the referee isn’t looking at him, so van der Flier knows he can be a pest without any Tigers biting him. In the above image, his hand is clasped onto Julian Montoya, who is attempting to fold around the post. Van der Flier pints Montoya onto the ground and kills Leicester’s fold completely. This opens a huge gap on the right-hand side of the post, and Robbie Henshaw scores immediately on the following phase.
This final example comes from the 55th minute of Leinster’s semi-final against Toulouse, as van der Flier is faced with the unwanted task of hitting Toulouse’s gargantuan, 116kg number 8 Selavasio Tolofua.
Any openside’s instinct should be to get the big man to the floor and compete for the ball, but not on this occasion. With Andrew Porter already going low, van der Flier goes high. Most of the Toulouse pack are within a 5 metre radius of the ruck, so the chances of a jackal turnover are slim.
If you can’t steal the ball on this phase, why not slow it down? He adjusts his grip to be around Tolofua’s hips, beneath the ball. At this stage, he can use his upper body strength and drive upwards to really slow down Toulouse’s phase play and allow his men to catch their breath.
Porter gets taken out of the game by Thomas Ramos, but van der Flier stays in the game. He remains on his feet, then uses the disgruntled bodies of Porter and Ramos as a banana skin and crumples over, with the Leinster defence raring to go.
By the time Antoine Dupont has the chance to pass the ball away, 11 seconds have passed between Tolofua catching the ball and the ruck being complete. The Leinster flanker is not only a nuisance with regards to speeding his own team’s ball up, but also relentless in slowing the opposition’s.
And this is before we even think about the tries he scored in both aforementioned Leinster finals, or the numerous breakdown turnovers he won against Wales. Whether it’s the stuff that gets noticed by onlooking fans, or the niftier work around the park, this flanker can do it all.
Whether he is better than Hooper or Kolisi may be up for debate, but he certainly deserves to be mentioned in the same conversation as them. Sometimes, a world-beating back-rower gains his/her reputation by being an unstoppable cog. Next time you have the “best back-rowers in the game” conversation, please do your best to remember how good Josh van der Flier was last time you saw him play.