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Analysis: Under-the-radar Josh van der Flier shows jackal class

The Ireland openside isn’t renowned as a jackal but has been working hard on his turnover skills.

THE NUMBER SEVEN shirt in rugby is most strongly associated with players who thrive at the breakdown, those who put their body on the line in their eagerness to turn over opposition possession or at least slow it down.

George Smith, Richie McCaw, Sam Warburton, Sean O’Brien, David Pocock – some of the great opensides of the professional era have been renowned as ‘jackals’ at the breakdown.

While it’s uncertain where the phrase ‘jackal’ came from – Eddie Jones claims it was former Australia prop Jake Howard who coined it – it’s a handy term to describe players who scavenge for the ball at the breakdown, looking to rip it clear of the attacking team or earn penalties as they fail to release.

Most opensides are highly proficient around the defensive breakdown but it’s not something that Leinster and Ireland man Josh van der Flier has always been known for.

cj-stander-congratulates-josh-van-der-flier-on-a-turnover Van der Flier was excellent at the breakdown against Scotland. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

The 26-year-old used to be desperate to show he had quality in this area but he has actually benefited in more recent times from relaxing about the number of turnovers he was winning. Van der Flier was inspired by one of the true masters.

“I used to kind of get caught up with turnovers because that was the big thing for me watching McCaw and Pocock, when you see on the TV however many turnovers they got in the game,” said van der Flier last year.

“What actually changed my mindset was reading McCaw’s book and he said he stopped looking at the number of turnovers he got but looked at how effective he was with the number of chances he got. That’s probably more the way I’d look at it.”

While continuing to work on the fitness, strength, flexibility, and technique that are crucial at the breakdown, van der Flier’s decision-making has noticeably improved over the past year.

Coming into the Six Nations, van der Flier had made six jackal turnovers this season for province and country, behind only Bundee Aki [10] Peter O’Mahony [8] in Ireland’s squad.

Still just 26, van der Flier had perhaps his best defensive breakdown performance yet for Ireland last weekend against Scotland. While CJ Stander deservedly attracted many of the plaudits for his two turnovers, van der Flier also earned two vital steals in a superb performance.

Van der Flier was Ireland’s busiest player in terms of attacking the opposition ruck and, as we will see below, his decision-making was exemplary. 

The Leinster man’s first effort came in the opening minute of the game and he very nearly had an early steal.

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Scotland get outside the Irish frontline defence here and make yards up the left, but van  der Flier works hard downfield.

Jordan Larmour makes a good tackle on Blair Kinghorn as he sweeps up from the backfield and, suddenly, opportunity knocks for van der Flier, who shows a clear release and then clamps onto the ball as he swings his legs in behind Kinghorn on the ground.

1

Only the clear side entry from Huw Jones [red above] prevents van der Flier from completing an early turnover.

Garry Ringrose screams, “In the side!” but referee Mathieu Raynal is not interested and play continues.

In the fourth minute, as Scotland attack again, van der Flier goes for a strip in the tackle for the first time, using his left arm to attempt to dynamically reef the ball from the grasp of Fraser Brown as he’s tackled by Tadhg Furlong.

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It’s an unsuccessful attempt from van der Flier, who then looks to readjust to jackal over the tackle, only to be cleared out from the side again.

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Before we go on, it’s worth just saying that this piece is not intended to be about Scotland illegally clearing out at the breakdown. We could easily go through the game and pick out the copious number of Ireland infringements in this area and elsewhere.

Instead, we’re interested in van der Flier’s positive work.

He gets his first turnover in the eighth minute of the game, as Ireland look like coming up empty-handed from a positive attack after Larmour’s linebreak. The ball comes loose from an Ireland ruck and Scotland’s Nick Haining dives on it, only for van der Flier to immediately turn it back over.

TO1

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Another referee might have given this penalty against Ireland.

As highlighted below, van der Flier initially leans himself right over the ball and he’s not supporting his own body weight on his feet. His right knee is leaning onto the bodies on the ground, while his forearms/elbows are taking weight too.

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Raynal has a good view of the breakdown and van der Flier is actually aided by the attempted clearing out by the Scottish players.

First, scrum-half Ali Price attempts to roll van der Flier off to the Irishman’s right before Rory Sutherland attempts to shunt him backwards. Those actions, combined with van der Flier’s fight, leave him in a convincing position…

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Van der Flier is now on his feet in the jackal position, clamped onto the ball. All of this unfolds in the space of three seconds and Raynal decides that the Ireland openside has earned a penalty for forcing Haining to hold onto the ball.

“On feet, I’m sorry, he’s on feet,” says Raynal. Ireland kick the penalty into the left corner and score the only try of game from the ensuing lineout attack.

Van der Flier justifiably felt he had earned a second turnover for Ireland in the 18th minute when he looked for another strip, this time with success.

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Scott Cummings carries the ball for the Scots but as van der Flier and Stander drive the lock backwards, Ireland’s openside manages to wrestle the ball free of his grasp.

Now, arguably, Cummings’ knee was on the ground first and the tackle was already complete before van der Flier strips the ball, but Raynal doesn’t call that.

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In the moment above, the ball has come loose and is therefore playable by any player on their feet.

Players off their feet are not entitled to play the ball but it drops down onto Cummings here and he reclaims it…

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… before presenting it back onto the Scottish side, where Iain Henderson attacks it looking for a turnover.

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Henderson isn’t in control of his body weight and Raynal penalises him, signalling that the Ireland second row needs to stay on his feet.

Ireland are highly aggrieved, with several players calling out, “He’s on the ground” even as Cummings presents the ball. The Irish players feel they should be getting the penalty.

Captain Johnny Sexton approaches Raynal to query the decision as the Frenchman says, “I didn’t see it, I don’t see it.”

Sexton: “We ripped. And then they caught the ball on the ground.”

Raynal: “I don’t see it.”

Sexton: “Can you check?”

Raynal: “No, I can’t check for that.”

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Sexton: “Can you check on the TV?”

Raynal: “No, that’s fine. Thank you very much, Johnny, thank you.”

To be fair to Raynal, it does look like Price impedes his view just as van der Flier has stripped the ball out and it’s a frustrating one for Ireland. From this penalty, Stuart Hogg blasts a superb touch-finder to within 10 metre of the Ireland tryline.

While Ireland reject the subsequent Scotland maul, they are soon defending their tryline again and need a big breakdown turnover to lift the siege.

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Peter O’Mahony is the one who completes the turnover here, but van der Flier assists the steal.

The Irish defensive tactic is clever. Below, we can see that van der Flier and O’Mahony are both standing slightly off the tackle, ensuring they’re not actually part of it.

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With Stander and Henderson both engaged in the tackle on Brown, the Ireland flankers are confident it will be completed.

Their patience in not committing means that when the tackle goes to ground, with all of the latching Scottish players too, both O’Mahony and van der Flier are now free to pounce over the ball.

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As we can see above, O’Mahony is first man in and gets his hands on, with van der Flier following him over the ball in the blink of an eye.

Van der Flier is fighting for the ball but he also provides crucial extra stability for O’Mahony as Cummings gets back to his feet and attempts to drive O’Mahony off the ball [red below].

Assist

Zander Fagerson then comes thundering into the ruck in a bid to save Scotland’s possession but O’Mahony has a firm grip on the ball and takes it with him as Fagerson shifts him, van der Flier again taking some of the impact.

Done

Raynal plays a brief advantage but comes back for a penalty against Brown for not releasing the ball.

It’s excellent defensive work from the Ireland back row.

Van der Flier’s next effort over the ball comes on the Scots’ next visit to the Ireland 22 in the 30th minute. As the Scots attack from a right-hand-side scrum, van der Flier breaks off the set-piece and targets the first breakdown.

Scrum

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Ireland lose the gainline as Jones carries into Bundee Aki’s tackle but that actually means the centre is ever so slightly isolated, allowing van der Flier a very brief window to get over the ball.

He leans his knees against Jones on the ground as he looks to find his balance…

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… and again briefly leans his arms onto the ground as he braces for the impact he knows is coming. Most jackals tend to lean over the ball in this manner, expecting the clear out to shunt them back up onto their feet but hoping to cling onto the ball.

In this instance, an aggressive clearout from Sam Johnson and Hamish Watson blasts van der Flier straight to ground, however. Watson does finish by driving van der Flier off to his right but it would have been a harsh penalty for the initial entry angle.

Ireland get a turnover on the very next phase though, as Henderson strips Sean Maitland in a tackle and Stander scoops up the loose ball.

There is time for another van der Flier involvement around the breakdown before half-time as he lends Stander a helping hand for the turnover that ends the dangerous passage following Johnson’s intercept of Conor Murray’s pass.

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Scotland will surely have had real frustration at this turnover again. While Stander’s hands come away from Fagerson for a split-second as O’Mahony completes the tackle, the release isn’t very clear.

As we can see below, Stander’s left hand immediately goes to ground to balance him just before he gets onto the ball

Support

But we’re focusing on van der Flier here and, as indicated above, he has clamped onto Stander immediately, looking to provide stability again as he anchors the number eight into place over the ball.

Stander’s own physical strength and his mental willingness to fight are most important, of course, but the additional support from van der Flier makes a difference as Scotland pile in trying to prevent the turnover.

Raynal is of the view that Stander is on his feet and Fagerson is holding on, so he awards the penalty to Ireland and they’re able to take their 10-6 lead into half-time.

Van der Flier doesn’t get another opportunity to attack the Scottish breakdown until the 65th minute when he comes very close to another turnover.

Close

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Jones carries off an inside pass from Adam Hastings and is met by Cian Healy and van der Flier in the tackle.

Having helped Jones to ground, van der Flier reloads onto the ball with impressive speed, doing enough to show that his hands have come off the tackle before he jackals.

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Healy is impeding Fagerson [3] from getting a big shot onto van der Flier as he looks to clear out, while Stuart McInally – whose entry is questionable – comes from van der Flier’s left as he clamps onto the ball. 

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With Jones on the ground doing his best not to allow van der Flier to pilfer the ball, the Scottish pair above him just about do enough to knock the Ireland openside off his feet.

He does have a grip on the ball and attempts to flick it back onto Ireland’s side as he’s driven away, but Scotland are fortunate that it pops up to Jonny Gray and they maintain possession.

As Gray is then tackled by Henderson, Stander jackals but Raynal correctly rules that Henderson has failed to roll away. Scotland kick the three points.

Just a few minutes later, van der Flier is back over the ball down the other end of the pitch.

Scrum

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Scotland are playing off a scrum in their own 22 and John Cooney makes a good low tackle on Chris Harris, allowing van der Flier to have a sniff at the ball.

Again, van der Flier gets into a good position but again he will be frustrated with the angle he’s cleared out from by Watson.

Van der Flier gets his hands on the ball but his opposite number arrives in from his right, lifting his right leg off the ground to destabilise him, and driving him away to allow Harris to present the ball.

Sexton soon kicks Ireland 19-12 in front but they have to defend ferociously in the closing minutes as Scotland desperately search for an equalising score. Van der Flier features prominently in the defensive stand.

Having already had an attempt at stripping a Scottish player during this passage – which ends with Stander’s big turnover – van der Flier has a dab at the breakdown.

Done

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With Scotland’s attack narrowing up, it’s worth a shot from van der Flier, who gets support from O’Mahony, anchoring onto his left side.

Van der Flier’s jackal effort means Watson, scrum-half George Horne and WP Nel all have to engage into the ruck to clear him away. It might not be a turnover but it means a six-second Scotland ruck, slowing them down and giving Ireland’s defence precious seconds to organise.

Scotland continue to batter away and van der Flier has another vital contribution.

VDF

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This is the phase directly before Stander’s turnover and it has an influence on that penalty win.

With Aki and Furlong hammering into a thunderous tackle on Cummings, van der Flier arrives over the tackle to get hands onto the ball. He doesn’t get a good grip and is never really going to win the turnover but, again, he’s looking to add seconds to the ruck.

That, in turn, allows Ireland to organise themselves to the left of the defensive ruck.

Set

By the time van der Flier, now off his feet, removes his left hand from the ball, Stander and James Ryan are in position to launch themselves at Scotland for the crucial turnover penalty.

Stander’s turnover grabbed much of the limelight post-match but this game actually ended with van der Flier’s turnover two minutes later.

A lineout infringement meant Ireland had to defend one last time and, fittingly after a hard-working performance, it was van der Flier who delivered the game-sealing steal.

Steal

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Toner, desperate to atone for the aforementioned lineout infringement, makes his second impactful tackle of this defensive set as van der Flier assists him in finishing that tackle on Allan Dell before releasing and attacking the ball.

Replacement hooker Ronan Kelleher, who had some important involvements in the dying minutes, plays the support role this time, clamping onto van der Flier just as McInally – who has to leap over Toner – arrives in.

RK

With Kelleher lending his weight, van der Flier completes the turnover. He tucks his right arm in under Dell’s shoulder as his left arm goes underneath Dell’s torso.

While this locks van der Flier in place as Dell tries to fight on the ground, it also allows his right hand to target the ball. Nel is the second arriving Scotland player but van der Flier shows huge jackaling endurance – in the 80th minute – to stay on his feet and claw the ball back onto Ireland’s side as Dell looks to place it.

It takes van der Flier four seconds to complete the turnover but it’s a decisive contribution as Raynal awards Ireland a scrum for Dell knocking-on down on the ground and Andy Farrell’s men are able to see out the remaining minutes.

With Wales possessing their own breakdown experts in the likes of Justin Tipuric, it should be another riveting contest over the ball in Dublin on Saturday.

Van der Flier is beginning to show that he can jackal with the best of them.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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