Tuesday 27 September 2016

Van der Flier making a name for himself

In his first major interview, Leinster flanker tells the Irish Independent how a Dutch couple's decision to stay in 1950s Finglas spawned Irish rugby's latest next big thing

Published 19/12/2015 | 02:30

Leinster's Josh van der Flier tells how a Dutch couple’s decision to stay in 1950s Finglas spawned Irish rugby’s latest next big thing. Photo: Sportsfile.
Leinster's Josh van der Flier tells how a Dutch couple’s decision to stay in 1950s Finglas spawned Irish rugby’s latest next big thing. Photo: Sportsfile.

It is fair to say that the name of Josh van der Flier has perhaps preceded him. Until now. How could it have been otherwise, with its unavoidably soaring potential for the pungent black type of the headline-writers?

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"Josh Off to a Flier!" "High-Flier Josh hits heights!" And so forth. The owner of the name, though, chooses his first major interaction with the fourth estate to politely issue some devastating news.

"Sorry to disappoint everyone but it's Van der 'fleer', not 'flyer'," he explains. "But I don't mind if people use either, to be honest. It's just…"

It's just that you have to go back to how his grandparents have always pronounced it that way, ever since arriving in this country more than 60 years ago. . . Now theirs is a story worthy of the headline-writers.

Johannes van der Flier and his wife Joke (her real name is Johanna but she has been called Joke as long as she can remember) were both Dutch and in love; he was from Amsterdam, she the Hague and life seemed grand.

But when the company that Johannes worked for planned to branch out, they earmarked him for the Irish leg of their expansion; the company would eventually go bust; protectionist Ireland was still emerging under Lemass and Co.

And so our heroic couple found themselves in the concrete jungle that was late 1950s Finglas; they were as marooned as a Listowel farmer might have been in Swinging London. What would they do now? They stayed, of course.

"Needless to say, when they were trying to improve their English, they couldn't quite get a grasp of how the locals spoke it," laughs Josh of a clearly oft-related yarn. Johannes set up the Veha radiators company and it still stands today; the family he begat, with two boys and two girls, still thrives also.

Dirk, arriving after two sisters and before one brother, was born in 1963; by this stage, the family had politely spurned village life in Finglas and decamped to Wicklow Town.

Dirk joined Old Wesley and he was decent enough to play for the Leinster U-21s.

Wrestle

"I remember when I was four, I'd go out into the back garden with his jersey on," recalls Josh. "We'd do some tackling practice, which was basically me trying to wrestle Dad to the ground."

His dad coached the Wesley U-8s but when he brought Josh down, it could only be for training. "I wasn't allowed play in matches," he says solemnly. After all, he was just five.

"When I was younger, I always remember that what I wanted to do was play for Leinster and Ireland. I didn't realise until I was 12 or 13 that it could actually be a job! I was happy with going to be a pilot or something and play rugby on the side."

While his older brother, Johan, bucked the trend and soared to his current 6ft 7ins (he wasn't a bad player himself until injury became the thief of progress), Josh sustained a diminutive status well into his teens.

A boarder at Wesley College, he was the smallest kid on the team until the Junior Cup season, such that he used to play scrum-half. But when he started rampaging into rucks and tackling everything that moved, they had to have second thoughts.

"I kind of shot up after I turned 16 (he is 6ft 1in now). I wasn't anxious about size but I was worried about not getting into Leinster underage trials. My attitude was well, if I'm too small to make it now, I'll try to make it at 23 or 24 when I'm bigger. So it wasn't a huge concern. I just started eating. A lot."

He was a decent cricketer and played alongside current Ireland spinner George Dockrell for a Leinster schools team; he dabbled in tennis and golf too.

But, even though he wasn't an avid attendee at Leinster games - he preferred to spend weekends at home with family - by his Senior Cup years, he was turning his thoughts to the professional game.

"The ultimate goal was always Leinster and Ireland but when you are 16, you have to realise that is not going to happen straight away, especially if you're a small little fella like I was.

"The first step was getting into the underage set-up rather than wanting to play for Brian O'Driscoll or Sean O'Brien. That stuff was still a long way off back then."

And the professional game was turning its thoughts towards him, too. He went straight to the sub-Academy while progressing his game under the wise tutelage of UCD's Bobby Byrne.

As an aside, Ireland and Leinster almost let him slip through their fingers; there was another course at the University of Cardiff which he reckoned might suit him more.

He got offered the course but something made him stay. Maybe it was the memory of wearing that Leinster jersey in his back garden. "All I knew was that I wanted to give rugby a go here," he says.

His breakthrough came against Ulster 13 months ago; he started the night as 24th man but was flung into action after a few minutes following the sudden withdrawal of Shane Jennings and an early injury to Jamie Heaslip.

"It was probably the best thing that happened to me, being thrown in at the deep end. It was my first involvement in the senior squad at the RDS. I was even nervous doing the warm-up because I'd never been on the pitch before. And then suddenly you're playing! It was such a confidence booster for me because I was playing with all these great players and I was able to hold my own.

"That gave me a taste for it and I knew that if I trained as well as I could, the World Cup period this season would be an important period for me. I figured if I played well then, I might be able to keep my spot leading into the European games."

Van der Flier still studies in UCD; along with yesterday's Captain's Run at the Aviva, he also had a final-year exam in Sports Management to complete. "It's a hectic life but I'm loving it."

He has every reason to; over 43,000 of them packing into the Aviva later this afternoon when he once again lines up against Toulon.

"It has worked out very well. It has gone so quickly, at times I pinch myself a bit. I started the season hoping for a few starts and suddenly I'm staring down Matt Giteau. It seems like a bit of a blur at times."

He loves watching the best in sport; his greatest wish is to meet either Michael Jordan ("just to pick his brains") or Rory McIlroy ("I admire his self-confidence"); when he played No 8, he studied Spies, Heaslip and Read; then, when openside, it was O'Brien, McCaw, Jennings.

Seventeen tackles last weekend against the three-time champions reflects his remarkable progress; it feels like the 22-year-old belongs at this level. And he has eyes for the next level. Just as he opted to swap his dad's allegiance for Leeds in preference for Arsenal - he is not alone - an even higher calling may await.

"Ireland is always at the back of my mind, obviously it's one of the goals I am working towards. For now, it's about every game and if that comes along with it, fair enough. I just have to keep doing what I'm doing."

It is safe to say there is now more to Josh van der Flier than just an unusual name.

Irish Independent

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