He will not be the first Christian to face a snarling opponent in Rome. The difference is that these days the Christian normally wins.
Josh van der Flier certainly knows how to. The last time he lost a game of rugby was in Eden Park eight months ago. In the meantime he has become Irish, European and World Player of the Year.
A household name? In the van der Flier house, perhaps. But beyond that do you really know anything about him? If he passed you in the street, would you instantly recognise him?
The answer is probably not.
Beneath that red scrum cap, a world class flanker lurks, an immense presence on Ireland’s victorious tour of New Zealand, the first name on Andy Farrell’s team-sheet for Sunday’s game against Italy in Rome’s Olympic Stadium but someone non-Irish rugby fans would struggle to pick out of a line-up.
It isn’t that he is shy; in interviews he is actually engaging while in dressing rooms he is regarded warmly.
Darragh Fanning saw that first-hand.
Way back in 2013, Leinster signed winger Fanning so close to the start of the season that by the time he got into the changing room, all the lockers were already assigned. The only place left to change was with the academy lads.
So that was where he went, togging out with guys who were six and seven years his junior, many of whom sounded the same: loud, cocky, presumptuous. There were exceptions. “Josh,” says Fanning. “Josh didn’t boast. Josh worked. He was seriously driven, even then, seriously hard working.”
You wonder where that comes from. Then you learn about his backstory.
The original van der Fliers were Dutch, Johannes and Johanna, emigrants to Ireland in the 1950s at a time when human traffic was mostly heading out of the country rather than in. Yet they saw a business opportunity, the chance to open a radiator factory in Wicklow.
Few made it in Irish business back then, post-war austerity lasting decades rather than years.
But there was something in the blood, something different about the van der Fliers.
George Strong would have related to that. Born a few counties away, Strong was a rugby man. But just as his future grandson would be accused of lacking something, Strong too had an issue crippling his sporting development. In van der Flier’s nascent rugby career, the problem was he couldn’t carry. Grandfather George’s was that he could not drive.
That wouldn’t be such a big deal today. But back then it was. He lived in Waterford but the club George Strong wanted to play for was in Kilkenny. That’s an 84-mile round trip to training. George never flinched. “He used to cycle it, week after week,” van der Flier said.
I find it fascinating that most people associate me as being religious and are intrigued that I have a faith.
Josh van der Flier
That’s where the work ethic comes from, Dutch presbyterianism merging with Irish passion for a sport few in the Netherlands had heard of.
Van der Flier was a Wesley College boy, just like his father, Dirk. Eric Miller aside, players didn’t really graduate from Wesley into the Ireland team until van der Flier came along. Even at underage trials, the flanker often slipped under the radar, coaches considering him too small.
But even when it seemed this sport he loved was going to pass him by, he always had faith … not just in his ability but also in God.
What the world sees is the red scrum cap and the skilful operator wearing it. What the world doesn’t see is the person inside that green shirt.
Until December last year, we didn’t know much about the little details that made him the best in the world, how he listens to beat music before a game to pump himself up, but how he often switches the cassette, and plays something softer, a hymn, when he needs to feel calm.
A portrait of a deep thinker swiftly emerged when he opened up to the author, Gerard Gallagher, for his book, Faith: in search of a greater glory in sport.
“I find it fascinating that most people associate me as being religious and are intrigued that I have a faith,” van der Flier said in Gallagher’s book that was published last year.
“I suppose it might be Irish culture… to keep your faith private. It’s very different to other players from overseas, who are very open and expressive about their faith.
“When I was in school there were not too many students open about their faith, if they had any.
“I remember watching big international games and I’d see the odd player with a cross on their wrist. This was very encouraging to me, to know there are other Christians playing sport.”
The twist to the van der Flier story does not come after he won his first cap for Ireland in 2016, nor when his ACL gets ruptured in the opening game of Ireland’s 2018 Grand Slam campaign. It comes in 2020 when he gets dropped.
“I guess what I’m saying is (the work ethic), it is in the blood.”
In one sense this is a common enough story. International players, by and large, possess a drive, a passion, a willingness to better themselves. That’s mainly why they rise above the pretenders.
But the twist to the van der Flier story does not come long after he won his first cap for Ireland in 2016, nor when his ACL gets ruptured in the opening game of Ireland’s 2018 Grand Slam campaign or even in the aftermath of the 2019 World Cup. It comes in 2020 when he gets dropped and the things he couldn’t do were mentioned way more often than his qualities.
He was strong, like grandfather Strong. But not strong enough. After the 2019 World Cup, he was one of the fall-guys. “I wasn’t getting picked for Ireland or Leinster,” reflected van der Flier after winning his World Player of the Year award. “And that drove me.” He went away, thought about what he had to do, and came back a different player, working on his footwork as well as bulking up. All of a sudden, he was getting across the gainline. From being an alleged weakness, carrying became a strength.
On Sunday afternoon he will carry Ireland’s hopes on to the pitch in Rome as their bid for a third grand slam in 14 years gathers pace. At 29, the summer of his career has arrived. The stats back it up. He has seven tries in nine starts for Leinster this season, with eight of his 10 international tries coming in the aftermath of that pep talk he gave himself after getting dropped two years ago.
This is Jamie Heaslip’s take on van der Flier’s development over that timeframe: “A sign of an amazing player, one that has no ego, a player that has the emotional intelligence not to have an ego take over and understand their role within the wider group, well, that’s Josh.”
Rugby wise, Josh was small when he came in first. I know he eats like an absolute horse to try and maintain weight, and he works incredibly hard in the gym to keep a bit of size on.
The stats back him up. The metres carried, the tackles made, the turnovers won. Of all the World Player of the Year winners, he is perhaps the only one who wasn’t a precocious youngster, someone who did not possess a golden ticket to the top. Or another way of putting it is he wasn’t the best openside in his club three years ago, never mind the planet.
“I wouldn’t say I’m very like Seán O’Brien in terms of personality,” said van der Flier last year, “but he’s someone I’d always look up to. Thinking back to when selection wasn’t going my way. That was when he rang me up to see how I was getting on.”
O’Brien did so because that’s the type of bloke he is but there was another reason. Van der Flier was never someone he considered a rival, even though they battled for the same position, more a guy he could relate to, despite coming from vastly different backgrounds: “Rugby wise, Josh was small when he came in first. He worked on that element of his game and he has to keep working on it,” says O’Brien, the former Lions flanker. “I know he eats like an absolute horse to try and maintain weight, and he works incredibly hard in the gym to keep a bit of size on.
“He is a phenomenal athlete, quick, with great endurance, able to sprint in the 80th minute as fast as he does in the first, and what people don’t see is the amount of rucks he hits. They mightn’t be huge moments in the game but they are massive for the team. If you watch his game closely he leads the charts in mostly everything now.”
And yet, despite the accolades, the prizes, the champagne collection from man of the match awards, he remains Irish rugby’s unassuming superstar, more Josh Under The Radar than van der Flier.
It is the perfect irony. The player everywhere to be seen on the field is still anonymous off it.
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