Josh van der Flier lost out on many a ready-made headline when his career path took him into the back row and not the back three but the 24-year-old remains well able to make a name for himself.
Not far off the 50-cap marker with Leinster, and with nine Irish caps to his credit, he managed an astonishing 34 tackles in the Guinness PRO14 New Year’s Eve defeat of Connacht at the RDS.
No-one has managed anything like it in the seven years since the league has been stockpiling those kinds of records. He beat the previous marker by four.
“I remember thinking during the game, ‘I’m making a lot of tackles here’,” he said.
He was fairly sure by the end that he’d managed a career-best but there was still a blow of the cheeks when someone revealed the final tally. And he wasn’t alone in his industry. Ross Molony signed for 27 and Max Deegan 26.
Connacht’s style helped given they like to hold onto the ball. They claimed 60% possession in the RDS that day and a fair amount of that came inside Leinster’s 22 where the home side had to stand firm against wave after wave of assaults.
Leinster missed 27 of their attempted 235 tackles all told but van der Flier didn’t contribute once to that particular column. That in itself is every bit as staggering a stat even if the examination of such raw data demands greater introspection.
“When I first came into Leinster and Ireland U20s it was, ‘no missed tackles, that’s brilliant’. Now it’s kind of, ‘oh well, you soaked a few tackles, you had a few tackles where you made them and they ended up a few yards past you before you managed to get them down’.”
Maybe more amazing again was the fact he didn’t feel all that beat up the next day. He has a theory on that. Most of his hits against Connacht were side-ons. Against, say, Montpellier he had the likes of Jacques du Plessis and Louis Picamoles running straight at him.
That work ethic has always been a calling card.
He’s a big boy by civvy standards but not so much in relation to his craft as a flanker. So, he shines in other ways. Fitness is a point of pride and, like so many sevens, he looks back to Richie McCaw for ideas and inspiration.
“He was definitely the master of it. With the change of rules you don’t want to be looking too much at his videos,” he laughed, “because the refs are a bit stricter now and some of the ruck things are probably not good, some of the things he was doing.”
McCaw wasn’t ‘the type to run the pitch, step the full-back’ but there is an acceptance from van der Flier that he needs to have a bigger input in attack as Leinster face into a round five Champions Cup meeting with Glasgow Warriors this week.
There is an expectation at the club that you should be able to catch a ball and play a pass regardless of the number on your back or where it is on the field and he admits that he harbours a habit of just catching the thing and putting his head down.
Senior coach Stuart Lancaster, himself a former flanker, has challenged him to be more of a link between the forwards and backs in much the way a seven was traditionally. To maybe pick off the back of a ruck and go again if the nine isn’t there.
Such growth is essential if Leinster are to reclaim past glories.
It’s over two years since van der Flier made his European debut with an impressive 20-minute cameo against Bath at The Rec. This was the season when they won just once in Europe in their six attempts.
The Wesley College alum was one among many youngsters blooded that season and the individual and collective experience banked in the time since — he has 17 Champions Cup games to his credit already — is clearly paying dividends.
Van der Flier thinks back to that Bath bow and how they battled back to parity before losing to a late penalty and then contrasts it to wins eked out against Montpellier, Exeter (twice), and Connacht this year when the dice could have rolled against them.
“It seems to be such small margins,” he said.
Helped no end by some monumental individual efforts.
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