Dutch heritage is responsible for Josh van der Flier’s surname and also dictates that it is pronounced “fleer” not “flyer”, so is slightly less of a headline-writer’s dream.
However, we can still say the Leinster openside’s career has undergone a jet-propelled take-off. From two Guinness Pro12 starts last season to Ireland’s Six Nations team now is a steep climb, but van der Flier is looking at home among Leinster’s stars and is impressing Joe Schmidt.
His father’s parents moved to Ireland from the Netherlands in the 1950s. One of their sons, Dirk, was a useful rugby player, representing Leinster U21, and he introduced his two sons, Johan and Joshua, to the game at Wicklow.
Dirk coached Johan’s team and Josh joined in with the U8s training from the age of five. He worked his way through the Wicklow age grades before heading to Wesley College in Dublin as a boarder and continuing his rugby there. Van de Flier stands 6ft 1in tall now, but for years he was one of his teams’ smaller boys.
“I played scrum-half until I was 14, then I was moved to flanker because I was getting into too many rucks and there was no one to pass the ball,” he laughs. He played No 8 in his last few years at school, dabbled at blindside for UCD, but is now concentrating on openside.
The Leinster Academy coaches, plus Leo Cullen and his predecessor Matt O’Connor, all worked hard last term to help the young flanker make the step up to the senior game and he is passing all the tests with flying colours – something he also hopes to do this spring as he completes his sports management degree.
Last season van der Flier, 22, played most of his rugby for Leinster A and UCD, but he had high hopes of stepping up this term. “With players away at the World Cup, the goal was to get as much game time as I could during that period and if I could play well enough I’d be able to stay in the frame afterwards,” he says. “It’s worked out that way, which is brilliant.
“Even though I had the goal to play this many games, it is still surreal when you get to play in big games, like my first European game against Bath (he scored after coming off the bench in the 19-16 loss) and playing Toulon with that calibre of player.”
His housemates are sure to keep his feet on the ground. He lives with three Leinster Academy players – Tom Daly, Peter Dooley and Adam Byrne – and another two lads from UCD. It must be a lively house, with a big fridge to hold enough food for all those hungry mouths. “We have two fridges!” he laughs. “And we don’t all eat together – we don’t have a big enough pot to cook for us all!”
Starting both European Champions Cup clashes with Toulon, van der Flier set himself a target of matching his highly acclaimed opposite number Steffon Armitage. “I didn’t quite achieve that but I learnt a lot, especially positioning-wise. At the breakdown he is impossible to move once he is on the ball. It was difficult to tackle him too.”
The physicality and pace of the game has been a step up for van der Flier, but he has adapted and is ready to help Leinster chase the Pro12 title. They finished outside the top-four last year for the first time since 2004, so are keen to make amends. “Our goal is a home semi-final for the Pro12, or first place ideally. There was disappointment about the results in Europe and that has an effect on the squad, but we’ve been good with bouncing back and are motivated to try to win the Pro12.
“There is a lot of confidence. The more games we’ve had, the better we’re playing as a group. Our defence has been the most pleasing thing and we’ve been gelling better.”
Van der Flier attended his first Ireland camp at the start of January and says: “It was quite intense, with a lot of catching up to do. I knew if I could play well with Leinster then maybe a chance of a place in a training squad or a call-up would be on the cards, but I wasn’t really thinking about it.”
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Now his first cap is within touching distance. If he handles the step up to Test rugby as well as he handled the move into the Leinster team, he will enjoy himself.
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