Let’s play a game. The kind rugby tragics up and down the country play while supping at an ale house or, in a more modern setting, on a WhatsApp group.
Which Premiership player has carried for the most metres this season, beaten most defenders and lies fourth in the number of carries?
To make it easier, he plies his trade down in Exeter with the Chiefs.
This narrows the field. ‘With 14 tries, surely Sam Simmonds?’ rugby sages chime in unison. Incorrect. Another stab? ‘Stuart Hogg?’ The livewire full-back with derring-do laced into his attacking DNA. Nope.
More stewing and chin-stroking. Could it be Exeter’s Lions, Jack Nowell and Alex Cuthbert, who have both dazzled but spent sizeable periods on the touchlines, or Josh Hodge, the buccaneering 20-year-old who never passes up an opportunity to cut into the line?
No, for those of you who have not been paying attention, the answer is Tom O’Flaherty, the Chiefs’ will-o’-the-wisp left wing, who has left Bristol flyers Charles Piutau and Ratu Naulago in his statistical wake with 850m carried and 55 defenders clasping at his vapour trails.
Little is known about O’Flaherty compared to his high-profile contemporaries. He eschews social media, preferring to catch waves along the Devon coastline, and when The XV catches up with him, he is packing up his surfboard into his VW Transporter and heading off to catch some rip-curls.
For the uninitiated, O’Flaherty was brought up in Herne Hill, in south-east London, and spent his formative years at Old Alleynians. His size dictated scrum-half was his natural mien and his rugby education continued at Dulwich College, where he had the spectres of old boys and England caps Nick Easter, Andrew Sheridan and David Flatman to aspire to. With former school-mates including Beno Obano, O’Flaherty showed promise and he was part of a side who lifted the Daily Mail Schools Cup. Still not picked up by a club, he took a year out, and spent half a season playing for Blackheath before packing up his metaphorical kit bag to travel around the world.
With his wanderlust sated, and a career as a professional rugby player still a speck on the horizon, he elected to study French and German at Cardiff University, ditching the latter after a year.
Chuckling away on the other end of the phone, the well-travelled flyer takes up the story.
“When I was at uni, I played a bit at Cardiff RFC under Martyn Fowler and in my second year I played at Bridgend Ravens, under Matt Silva and Mike Hook (James’ brother). I was a few years ahead of Sam Underhill, who had a similar journey,” he said.
“Gaining those experiences in different countries and academies has meant I’ve absorbed lots of different thinking. At that stage in my life, rugby didn’t seem as important as gaining life experience.
In France, it’s much more of an emotional way of thinking. You just have to adopt the French way of life and immerse yourself in their culture.
Tom O’Flaherty on his year abroad
With his third year spent in France, he picked another rugby hotbed – you can see a theme – Montpellier, where he found himself playing for their Espoirs, which is akin to an A-League, and deepening in Gallic understanding. “In France, it’s much more of an emotional way of thinking. You just have to adopt the French way of life and immerse yourself in their culture,” he said. “As a nation, they are built on liberté, egalité, fraternité and looking back it was one of the best years of my life. It’s not for everybody, but it suited me.”
On his return, he had a firm bit of interest from the Ospreys but Rob Baxter had got wind of a young wing with bags of potential and O’Flaherty was on the move again.
Unlike many players of the modern age, who are locked in an academy with a club from their mid-teens, O’Flaherty believes his circuitous route to elite rugby has made him a more rounded individual, and he hones his linguistic skills when being put up for press with French journalists. “I’ve enjoyed the experience of playing all over the place. Gaining those experiences in different countries and academies has meant I’ve absorbed lots of different thinking,” he said.
O’Flaherty’s laid-back nature and acceptance that there is more to life than rugby is refreshing. He seems confident enough in his own skin not to be chasing likes on social media and falling into a stereotype of a gaming-obsessed professional rugby player who spends his life in a coffee shop.
“I don’t pay attention to the media at all. I just crack on and do my own thing during the week and play rugby on the weekend,” said O’Flaherty. “Earlier this week, I played golf with Stu Townsend and Joe Simmonds and I’d like to think it helps our understanding on the pitch.”
Another passion of O’Flaherty’s away from the day job is fishing, where he can take in the Devonian air. “I’ve fished for a long time. When I was a kid, I’d go with my old man and a mate to a lake in Bromley to catch carp. We were really into it and used to read Angler’s Mail for tips,” he said. “Moving down here it’s more sea fishing, picking up sea bass, or a bit of spear fishing. It allows me to switch off.”
When you see O’Flaherty play, he most certainly switches on and you can see clues to his former position. He doesn’t hug the touchline and is more than happy to come infield looking for the ball, where his footwork, raw pace and reading of the game allow him to thread his way through opposition defences. It is an understanding of both positions and a comfort with the ball in hand that allowed Shane Williams to thrive.
You’re brought into an environment for a reason and you have to have that inner confidence, which I suppose I’ve always had. I knew I had stuff to learn, but I didn’t think it was beyond me.
Tom O’Flaherty on the secret to his success
The idea to play him on the wing was taken at Cardiff RFC when he impressed with his rapid 40-metre times and explosivity in jump tests, but still the leap from the Welsh Premiership to one of Europe’s best clubs in 2017 must have felt like a chasm when he joined. It merits the question, did he ever feel like didn’t belong?
“Not really. You’re brought into an environment for a reason and you have to have that inner confidence, which I suppose I’ve always had. I knew I had stuff to learn, but I didn’t think it was beyond me,” said O’Flaherty. “I’ve had to work on understanding the Chiefs’ system, working on taking high balls and the kicking but I enjoy it. The Chiefs are very good at moulding you and being able to understand the game a bit better. Our wings don’t just stand on the flanks, they come looking for work and, personally, I thrive in broken-field play. Being evasive is where I’m happiest and I’ll need some of that against Lyon.”
With such a level of consistency in the Premiership, it begs the question, have there been whispers that Eddie Jones has been watching from afar? “I haven’t heard a dickie bird from Eddie, but hey-ho. Of course I’d love to play for England, but I don’t think much beyond the Chiefs and what’s in front of me. What’s the point of worrying?” he smiles.
O’Flaherty can console himself with playing for the Premiership champions week after week and mixing with world-class players in the back three, including Scotland captain Hogg and Nowell.
“Hoggy’s basics are outstanding. He also has the ability carry the ball in two hands at unbelievable speed and pass the ball at full tilt. That marks him out as a special player. He’s also a great footballer and has the ability to kick long but also mix it up with deft little dinks over the defence,” he said. “Then you’ve got Nowellsy, who just shrugs off tackles and is extremely powerful. They have attributes which makes them stand out and I’m lucky to play with them.”
While there are a trio of Lions in the back three, with Cuthbert also coming back from injury and the hugely experienced Olly Woodburn, O’Flaherty knows there is a succession plan in the South-West with England Under-20 star Hodge and Santiago’s brother, Facundo Cordero, also tearing it up this season. He admits he has passed his fresh-faced, novice stage and is moving squarely into seasoned pro territory.
After winning the double, we know teams are going to come after us. It’s the business end of the season, so it’s time to step up.
Tom O’Flaherty on the pressure at Exeter
“I’m in that middling phase but everyone helps everyone here. It’s not hierarchical environment. We have to get better after last year to stay ahead of the chasing pack, so we do it collectively,” he said.
The dialling up of pressure on the Chiefs this season is not lost on O’Flaherty, who knows they now have a target on their back. “In the Premiership everyone is coming after us and in Europe it’s knockout, so there will be no second chances. It’s just four games in Europe, which sounds easy, so we’ll give it a crack. After winning the double, we know teams are going to come after us. It’s the business end of the season, so it’s time to step up.”
With a fully loaded Lyon side boasting some serious firepower in Josua Tuisova, Noa Nakaitaci and Mathieu Bastareaud, the Chiefs’ will know their Cup-holding credentials will be rocked to their foundations by the French side if they don’t turn up.
As a committed Francophile, O’Flaherty be primed for action and looking to use his va-va-voom to spirit his way past the Lyonnais. Catch him if you can.
More stories from Owain Jones
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