The livewire young Tiger is now electrifying England’s game from scrum-half
Jack van Poortvliet was a teenager in possession of a shotgun when he first made an impression on the man whose place he was set to take in the Leicester Tigers squad.
Long before exploding onto the international stage with England, the emerging scrum-half was turning heads and firing shots as part of a golden age of youngsters emerging through the club’s famous academy.
Future Scotland star Ben White and fellow Norfolk native Harry Simmons were pushing to become Ben Youngs’s successor or to elbow the senior alternative Sam Harrison out of contention in a competitive field of nines.
“The first thing I remember was Matt Smith, who had just retired and did a year coaching the academy, saying the name Jack van Poortvliet, as I’d never heard a name like it,” Harrison says. “Matt said Jack was the best out of the year along with Freddie Steward.
“I’d already made the decision that I was going to retire by that point. The next pre-season was Jack’s first in the senior squad, so to speak. The first time I met him was when we went clay pigeon shooting and he was really good at it. That was the first thing he was better than me at!”
Harrison stunned the English club game back in October 2019 when he announced his retirement at the age of 29, having played more than 150 times for Leicester. The appeal of Australia’s Gold Coast and starting a new life in sunnier climes away from professional rugby were the motivating factors; not necessarily the young upstarts champing at the bit to fill his boots at one of the giants of English club rugby.
“I’d already decided to retire,” he says. “But then I saw this young bloke coming through and I thought I’m not going to get a game anyway!”
The making of van Poortvliet
On the clay-pigeon shooting range at least, ‘apprentice’ van Poortvliet held a distinct advantage over ‘master’ Harrison. As the great, great-grandson of a Dutchman who relocated from Holland to purchase a farm in Norfolk, he grew up working the land that bordered another farm owned by the Youngs family.
“I probably only had a couple of training sessions with Jack at the start of his career and the end of my career. At that point I was very much just looking at the young lads coming through,” Harrison says. “Tigers training can, historically, be high pressured, especially when I was his age, and it was very much a case of crapping yourself that you might make a mistake.
“That was certainly the case for me and Youngsy (Ben Youngs). But Jack was pretty much unshakeable for a young lad.
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“I knew from the psychological side of it, he would be fine. He had that sort of thing where he wouldn’t get too up or too down, so to speak. He wouldn’t think he was better than he was, or worse than he was. I think for a nine, that’s a very important quality to have. At scrum-half, if your forwards are getting dominated, you’re sort of the tip of the iceberg of the game.”
Just a month after Harrison played his 174th and final Tigers match in January 2020, van Poortvliet made his Premiership debut three months shy of his 19th birthday. It proved to be a chastening evening for the youngster, who had an attempted box kick charged down for one of Sale’s five tries on their way to a 36-3 win. Tigers would lose all six of the games in which van Poortvliet featured that season before he enjoyed a breakthrough campaign in 2020-21, featuring in 16 club games and then captaining England U20 to Six Nations Grand Slam glory.
Those leadership qualities were identified by England coach and former Tigers boss Steve Borthwick, who selected the then 20-year-old as his captain for two Premiership Rugby Cup games at the start of a season that would see van Poortvliet appear 27 times in club colours on his way to becoming a Premiership champion.
However, only six of those league appearances came in the starting XV as the experienced pairing of Richard Wigglesworth and Ben Youngs were preferred, including in the 15-12 final win over Saracens at Twickenham and the Heineken Champions Cup exit to Leinster a month before.
It became a source of frustration for Harrison as he tuned in from thousands of miles away.
“I watch every Leicester game over here, the TV coverage is brilliant,” says Harrison. “For me, it was frustrating last season, Jack didn’t play that much for Leicester. That was the year when I thought he’s got to start 50 or 60% of the games and I was getting frustrated. Hopefully this year he will start a lot more games.”
Celebrations of a first title triumph in nine years were cut short as van Poortvliet was named among six Tigers players called up for England’s summer tour to Australia. Shortly after coming on for his Test debut in Perth, as England chased a lost cause, van Poortvliet marked the occasion with a maiden try, earning him a start for the showdown in Brisbane a week later.
Watching his first game of live rugby since hanging up his boots and heading Down Under was his proud former colleague Harrison. “Ellis Genge had got me a ticket and I was sat next to Jack’s mum and dad,” Harrison says. “Australia had put all their effort into making it a really intimidating place for England to play, at a sold-out Suncorp on a Friday night.
“They had all the Aboriginal music, the fireworks. I was just thinking of Jack, bloody hell. I don’t think I’d be able to do this. He would’ve been 20 at the time I think. There was no bigger test for a scrum-half, starting against Nic White in Australia. England had to win to level the series.”
England managed just that, with their starting scrum-half playing 62 minutes of a 25-17 victory that set up a series decider in Sydney. Two-and-a-half years after speaking to any of his former colleagues, Harrison made his way to pitchside in the hope of a face-to-face reunion.
“I was waiting for him to come around,” says Harrison. “I was a bit nervous, I’d not spoken to the lads since I left. It was like, ‘will he even know who I am?’ Then he came over, I said, ‘Bloody hell, Jack!’ I hugged him and he was huge! I couldn’t believe how much he’d developed physically.
“His parents said that I really helped him when he was young. I think they were just being nice to me! He was on top of the world. Hopefully there’s plenty more in the bank.”
Van Poortvliet not only looks set to become Ben Youngs’s long-term successor at Mattioli Woods Welford Road when he eventually hangs up his boots but at international level too. Former England head coach Eddie Jones fielded a rotating cast of back-ups to the 33-year-old Youngs without ever fully convincing the watching public there is outright confidence in individuals behind his first-choice option. But there’s a quality in the young Tigers contender that Harrison believes will see him emerge above a talented group of half-backs to hold a sustained challenge for Youngs’s position before eventually making the role his own.
“There’s so little between Jack and the likes of Raffi Quirke, Alex Mitchell and Harry Randall,” Harrison says. “There’s no reason why they couldn’t be the number one. But in terms of having that cool-headedness – which I suppose Owen Farrell is probably known as one of the best in the world for – I feel like Jack has got that about him. Jack just doesn’t get fazed by much. I think that is why Eddie picked him. He is young, he has got the ability, probably the same ability as a couple of nines in the country.
“Also he’s not overly intense about it. Rugby has its place. That’s my experience of him, anyway. You can get some players in this day and age and one bad game, and that’s it. They will study it, and take every bit of criticism online to heart. And you’re like, ‘blimey, you’re never going to come back from this’.
“To me, as someone looking on from the outside now, Jack is someone who knows his own ability and won’t take that kind of exterior load on, it’s just not important really. He is quite laid-back about it. That’s the way I was and that’s why I can see that’s what he is like.
“Technically he has got it all. With Richard Wigglesworth being at Leicester, the most experienced half-back that there is, it’s not a coincidence that he and Youngsy are there and Jack is showing this authority in his game that is unheard of at that age.
“That’s a big reason why he is being picked, that cool head he is picking up from the scrum-halves he is working with.
“I saw it when he was a farmer’s boy doing the clay-pigeon shooting. He was just very calm and unaffected by outside noise. That will stand him in good stead for a long and successful playing career at the very top level.”
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