He’s the reigning World Rugby men’s Player of the Year – but the Leinster star wants more. This piece first appeared in Rugby World magazine in January
Josh van der Flier’s daily school routine took him in the front door of Wesley College in Dublin and past the wall that honoured all the sporting internationals the school had produced; the Olympians, the hockey players, the sailors, the rugby players, of which there were only two since its formation in 1895 – Herbert Aston from 1908 and Eric Miller from 1997.
He always wanted the family name up on that sporting honours board and he got his wish, but not in the way he imagined. In 2011, at the age of 14, his younger sister Julie played a one-day cricket International for Ireland against Pakistan.
“For my last two years in school I walked past the board and saw Julie’s name up there and that was a huge motivation for me. Not that I ever thought I’d be up there with her.”
Not only is he up there on the honours board at Wesley, he’s now, at 29, among the most lauded players in the global game and the reigning World Player of the Year, an award he says made him feel like a child at the ceremony in Monaco in November: “Dan Carter was sitting here and Conrad Smith was over there and Bryan Habana was somewhere else and it was all the great players I admired as a kid. It was unreal.”
Of course that award was just his latest, following on from being crowned European Player of the Year, Irish Player of the Year and Leinster Player of the Year. The openside flanker has hoovered up the lot. He was at the heart of everything as Ireland won a historic series in New Zealand last summer and was momentous again when beating South Africa and Australia in the autumn. The tearaway has ripped it up.
We know his story, or at least some of it. His grandparents on his father’s side, Johannes and Johanna, moved from the Netherlands to Dublin in the 1950s; his grandad started a business selling radiators. The business, like the radiators, grew hot. Their son Dirk married Olly and then they had Josh. They moved to Wicklow and the boy started playing rugby. Van der Flier was, in his own words, small and easy to miss. As a kid there was nothing to suggest that greatness beckoned for the boy with the red scrum cap.
“I went to Wesley and nobody would call Wesley a rugby powerhouse like some of the schools in south Dublin,” says van der Flier. “I was one of the smallest on our team and was very conscious of it. I always thought I needed to be heavier. I got mad into training in the fourth year, when I was 15 or 16, but I didn’t really know what I was doing.
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“Looking back, I was overtraining. I really wanted to be a professional player and I thought if I kept working hard then maybe when I’m 26 or 27 and I’d grown enough, I might have a chance with Leinster. I never thought I’d make it this far.
“It’s such a thing at school how big you are and how much you can bench-press. I remember looking up Richie McCaw’s weight and he was 106kg. I was 89kg at the time and I thought I could never play professional rugby until I was that weight. I only ever got to 106kg for a month or two and then I shrunk back down again.”
These were the modest beginnings of a remarkable player. There were doubts and worries everywhere at the start of his story: about making it through his first crack at the trials for the Leinster Schools team (he didn’t); getting picked up by the Leinster academy; and about the size and talent of the other opensides in the system.
“You get players that people talk about even when they’re in school – ‘Keep an eye on this kid, he’ll play for Ireland’. I was never, ever one of those,” says van der Flier. “Everybody was better than me. Even when I started making progress I always had this thing, ‘Will I be fit enough to play professional rugby, will I be strong enough, will I be able to live with the big guys?’, and then I made my debut for Leinster in 2014 and I was okay.
“But you’re never comfortable. Even fairly recently, two years ago or even a year-and-a-half ago, I was on the bench for some games with Leinster and I was wondering where I was going.”
He’d been an Ireland cap for four years at that point. He’d beaten New Zealand, he’d played at the World Cup. He’d won things with Leinster.
“Will Connors was ahead of me at Leinster and when you’re not getting picked – and Will is a couple of years younger than me – you’re going, ‘This is not good. Is this what the slow demise feels like?’”
Rugby being a brutal sport, Connors got injured, a door opened and van der Flier came steaming through it. He gives thanks to the Leinster medical staff for keeping him in such good shape and counts himself blessed to be part of two awesome teams.
“Take Johnny Sexton. Everyone says how good he is but he’s actually better than you think he is. Everybody sees his performances and they’re brilliant, but only his team-mates and his coaches know how good he makes everyone around him.
“I’m a far better player because I train and play with him. One of the things he has that I don’t have is this ability to make the whole team better. In many years, when I’m long retired, I’ll say I was lucky to play with him.”
Ireland’s van der Flier and faith
He says of himself that at critical times along the way he’s had the bounce of the ball, which is his modest side coming out. A lot of players tend to get the bounce of the ball when they work like demons. Van der Flier’s work-rate is his calling card, or one of them. He’s perpetual motion. An unrelenting force. He’s earned the plaudits.
“After the World Rugby awards night I was talking to my mum and dad and we were all saying that you couldn’t really see that (award) coming,” says van der Flier. “I almost get a bit emotional thinking back to the times when it was tough and when I had feelings that I wasn’t going to make it and that I was finished. I’m happy for my parents. I’m in the public eye but they’re incredibly proud of all of us.
“My brother works for Christ in Youth, a Christian group organising camps for kids and doing social work. He’s done some missionary work as well and he’s an unbelievable man. That’s Johan. Julie is the cricketer and Kirstin is the brains and the creative one. She does graphic design.”
Ireland’s van der Flier talks about his parents and what their faith means to them: “They pray a lot, especially my mum. They pray before games and then my dad will have a glass of wine to calm himself down because he’s desperate for me to play well and gets nervous. My mum would be more, ‘As long as you’re safe then I’m happy’. A lot of mothers are the same, very protective.
“Faith is important to my family and to me. It’s part of my day-to-day life. I say a prayer before games, not because I’m praying for a good performance but because I grew up in a Christian family and it’s something I believe in.”
He’s a unique man is van der Flier. You get a sense of this when he talks about his love of visualisation, a technique he performed even before he knew what it was called. “I do it all the time. I visualise trying to pass off my left side and various things. When I was younger I was in my imaginary world the whole time and I’d be walking along the street and (he’s a keen golfer) imagining the green was 150 yards over there and the flag was back left and I’d be thinking about what kind of shot I was going to hit.
“I daydream a bit. I always watched Wimbledon and I would see them playing all these shots and then imagine myself trying to play those shots. Then I’d go out to play tennis and I might be able to do them once or twice, which I loved.
“I’d imagine I’d just dropped a ball in the final of a World Cup and everybody was booing me – how was I going to bounce back from that? How am I going to deal with that pressure? I’d watch Star Wars and then spend the whole day running around pretending I was a Jedi Knight.”
Not your typical sportsman then. The summer tour to New Zealand was a riotous experience and he wants more of that, even though he fights a battle with himself in the build-up to those big occasions. “I enjoy it but if I’m on the bus heading to a stadium and somebody says the game is cancelled I’d be absolutely delighted. Because of the nerves. You get over it when you’re out there.”
Which brings us up-to-date. What’s done is done. New year, new challenges: a URC title, European Cup, Six Nations and World Cup. “I’d love to win all of them. There are so many huge games coming up for Leinster and Ireland and you just hope we all stay fit and get there in good shape. We’ll see how it goes after that. You can’t plan ahead, you can’t make predictions. You just focus on the next one and give it everything.”
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