“It was really, really frustrating,” Josh van der Flier says on a gray day in Dublin as, just briefly, his sparkling good cheer and disarming modesty give way to something more tangled. Van der Flier, the consistently excellent flanker in the red scrum cap for Ireland and Leinster, is World Rugby’s player of the year. He was one of the standout performers in Ireland’s recent grand slam, confirming their status as world No 1, and on Saturday he will try to help Leinster beat Toulouse in the semi-finals of the Champions Cup as they set about reclaiming their title as the best team in the northern hemisphere.
But just over two years ago, as he was often kept out of the Leinster and Ireland teams by Will Connors, a dejected Van der Flier felt he had hit an invisible wall. “I was thinking: ‘What more can I do? I’m working on everything and still trying to improve but it’s not quite happening. It was so frustrating because Will was actually playing brilliantly. But I also felt like I was playing really well. I remember at one stage he started the game and got man of the match. They rotated the [Leinster] team the next week and I got man of the match. But the following week they picked him to start and he played unbelievably.”
Van der Flier smiles, helplessly, as he remembers how Connors was almost always the favored starter. “I found it very difficult for those six months or so where he was starting ahead of me for the big games. I didn’t know how to improve.” Everything changed in March 2021, when Connors was injured just before Ireland played England, and Van der Flier was given another chance. “One of the bits of feedback Andy Farrell [Ireland’s head coach] gave me help. He said: ‘Get some big moments and try to get more involved. Find ways to make a big difference in big games.’ Before then I was very happy just to be in the background, work real hard, make my tackles, hit the rucks.
Stuart Lancaster [Leinster’s assistant head coach] described it really well when I was chatting to him about the reasons why it’s gone better for me since then. He said that with ball-carrying I probably got a bit more selfish. It might be the wrong word but before then I would be happy for our best ball‑carriers to take charge. But I’d got to the stage that, if there’s three of us, I’m going to stand up and take this ball. That was one of the key things I developed.”
Van der Flier’s progress since then has been marked but his blistering performances are matched by his humility and generosity off the field. “When I think of Will,” he says of Connors, “I feel it was really hard for him. He was starting ahead of me and then he hurt his knee. The poor man’s had injury setbacks but at least he’s back fit now, which is great. But that gave me the opportunity to play a lot of games.”
He also attributes his growth to a simple lesson handed to him by the now retired Australian forward Scott Fardy, who played with him at Leinster from 2017 to 2021. “Scott got to know me, and he’d see how I’d overanalyse games. . He was like: ‘Your technique’s good, you work on it loads, you can do everything. You just need to relax and play the game rather than trying to overanalyze or force it.’ He encouraged me to trust my instincts.
That freedom has coincided with a remarkable run for Van der Flier and Ireland. I ask which meant more – helping Ireland to beat the All Blacks last year in a series in New Zealand for the first time, or winning the first Irish grand slam on home soil in 75 years last month? “The grand slam,” Van der Flier says, “because of watching the Six Nations my whole life. When I think about the New Zealand tour I remember a quote about Italia 90. That World Cup was a huge thing in Ireland with the football but one of the players said: ‘I missed Italia 90, because I was playing.’ He missed all the buzz, all the fun, the craic.
“It was the same for us in New Zealand because you’re so focused on the game, we’re in our bubble and everyone at home is 12 hours behind us. And there was nothing like the absolutely incredible, amazing thing to be part of in Dublin for the grand slam. You would see in the streets what it meant to people.”
I’ve heard the party went on a long time for the Irish team? Van der Flier grins and says: “Yeah, two, three days. It helped that we had no [Leinster] game the next week. Normally I’d find it hard to celebrate because I’d always be thinking of the next game. But the Six Nations came at a perfect time. I could relax and we enjoyed the celebrations.”
The World Cup in France is just over four months away and Ireland are in formidable shape. Does their newest talisman believe they can be even better once the tournament begins in September? “Yes, I think so. Andy Farrell has made it very clear since he took over that the team is on a journey to keep improving. We’ve developed hugely and we have a lot of experience and big games under our belt. It’s very exciting because we definitely feel like we will still improve and that our best lies ahead.”
He adds: “Andy’s certainly not afraid to give us big goals – whether winning in New Zealand or winning the grand slam. I know for sure the next goal is to try to win the World Cup.”
New Zealand, South Africa and Australia will be resurgent at the World Cup but France remain marginal favorites as hosts, just ahead of Ireland. “The French are always known for how good they are at home,” Van der Flier concurs. “They’re a different beast in France and their depth is unbelievable. They have four or five quality players in every position and are very well coached.”
Ireland beat them in an exceptional game in Dublin in the Six Nations and “it was incredibly tough”, Van der Flier says. “I remember us being pretty exhausted. The stats show that there was a lot of kicking but it didn’t really seem like that type of game. It was pretty intense and they were very motivated, a really good team going hard at it, but having the home support makes a huge difference. But the intensity and quality of play, with some unbelievable moments from both teams, made it one of those great Test matches you’re happy to be a part of.”
There will be something of a repeat on Saturday afternoon in Dublin. Leinster, which includes many of the Ireland side, face Toulouse who feature great players such as France’s half-back pairing of the brilliant Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack. “They’re a phenomenal team,” Van der Flier says of Toulouse. “I watched them against the Sharks this month and they were very impressive. They’ve got a really good pack and dangerous, exciting backs. I’ve played them a few times now at this stage [of European competition] and you have to be incredibly alert the whole time because of their creativity. Someone picks and goes, throws an offload and they’re through.
“They played us last year, and the year before as well, and they will be hurting from having lost to us the last couple of times. They’ve won the European Cup five times, more than anyone else, and so it’s a big challenge.”
If Leinster triumph in the European Champions Cup they will join Toulouse as five-time winners but Van der Flier is acutely conscious that La Rochelle, the holders, could be in the final again. They beat Leinster 24-21 last year and Van der Flier stresses that defeat has stayed in his head longer than most of the great victories over the past two years.
During an absorbing hour-long interview, Van der Flier reflects on his struggle to make an impact in junior rugby, the example given to him by his Dutch and Irish grandparents, sitting on his father’s shoulders while watching Ireland play at the old Lansdowne Road, remembering what it meant to revere the Irish team back then and how his understated Christian faith sustains him. Van der Flier also explains how he has used Richie McCaw as his back-row template and why, like the former great All Black, he is driven by a desire to constantly improve.
We also talk about the damage caused by concussion and how so many former rugby players now face the early onset of dementia. Van der Flier says: “For my mum, both my grandmothers and my wife, they just hope you’re OK. The result is secondary. My dad and my brothers focus mostly on the performance. Obviously they care too but, for my wife, it definitely took a bit of getting used to it. She wasn’t hugely into rugby and she’s found it a bit tricky watching.”
Does he worry about potential brain damage? “I don’t think so, no. It’s obviously very sad to see people struggling, having played this great game, but from my experience with Leinster and Ireland our medical staff is incredible. There would be times where I think I’m all geared up to play and the medical staff make the call: ‘No, we’ll keep you safe this week, or we won’t take any risks.’ That side has improved hugely.
Having turned 29 this month, and being so eminently sensible, Van der Flier has started to prepare for life beyond rugby. He admits, almost shyly, that after obtaining his sports management degree and a master’s in business studies: “I’ll be looking for a bit of work experience soon.”
There is time for one last question – a suitably relaxed query as to which two Ireland teammates he would choose to help him out on a desert island and which two might not be ideal companions. “I don’t think I’d bring Andrew Porter and James Ryan [the Irish and Leinster prop and lock],” he replies with amusing.
“They’d eat so much food that there’d be nothing left for me. And if there was a fight over anything I’d lose to both of them. I reckon I’d bring [Ireland and Leinster centre] To install Gary Ringrose. He’s good company, a great friend of mine. We’d make golf clubs out of sticks and a ball with something. I reckon the most useful would be Peter O’Mahony [the Ireland and Munster flanker], I can see him building a shelter and a boat out of a tree. He’d be very practical and clued in so he’s coming. He’d keep me alive.”
In that little quip, the wit, strength and unity of Irish rugby is obvious. Van der Flier is at the heart of this remarkable story and he carries the conviction and determination to make this year hugely memorable for himself, Leinster and Ireland. “We’re going to give it our very best,” he says with the easy readability that defines him and his two groups.