‘I practiced until the cows came home’: Englishman Jack van Poortvliet reveals early agricultural influences
Growing up on the family farm in Norfolk, Jack van Poortvliet’s childhood mission was to emulate Jonny Wilkinson. Using recycled poles and a mini pitch cut out of a field, he trained until the cows came home.
When England’s new scrum-half sensation was 10, it was the shirt number he aspired to wear. He had been playing for North Walsham RFC since he was five years old and it was there that Jack’s dad Jeff gave him the perfect Christmas present for a young rugby fan who wanted to hone his craft.
“Dad was at our rugby club and they were getting rid of some old positions,” Leicester rookie Van Poortvliet said, days after his first Test start when England beat Australia in Brisbane to level the series . “They were rusty and dad said he would pay for them. He gave them a fresh paint job and put them in the cow field.
Jack van Poortvliet made his debut in England’s win over Australia on Saturday
“I used to mow the lawn around. I cut a line on the 22 and a path around the 22. Then I practiced throwing the 22. I spent hours in that field. We had a small quad and sometimes my sister had fun on it while I was pounding.
“I struggled at first, but I would do it every winter until the cows came, around April or May. They would leave in August-October. occasion, I would go out and train.
Van Poortvliet wanted to emulate England legend Jonny Wilkinson as a child
“We had to remove the posts when the cows arrived. I stayed away from the cows. I was afraid of cows when I was a kid but I got over that. The messages are still there. They probably have a few blades of grass growing around them now.
When he spent all those hours in that field of cows, during all those winter months every year, there was a man that Van Poortvliet imagined himself to be, every time he lined up another shot on goal. Wilkinson – the king of kicks and the hero of the 2003 World Cup victory.
“It was always Jonny,” he said. “Mom has videos of me when I was four, with the piece of cardboard from a toilet paper roll cut in half. I used to put it down (like a hitting tee) and line it up with my left foot in the kitchen, then run around the ball to hit it with my right foot. Mom was sick of me doing this when she was trying to cook and I was sending these little rubber balls flying around the kitchen!
“It was always Jonny growing up, watching him and copying everything I could about him. It was the same for everyone my age. It was the Jonny era.
“He was a big, big inspiration and someone I grew up idolizing.” There were other inspirations for a versatile sportsman who also excelled at cricket and athletics.
His father was one. Jeff was a good player at the end of the amateur era and represented Saracens, before the emergence of World Cup winner Richard Hill – now England manager – played a part in convincing him to return to its local roots.
England’s dominance against Australia on Saturday came from their attacking group
“Dad played for Saracens for a few years and left just before rugby turned professional,” Jack said. “He couldn’t justify traveling for two hours, three times a week when he had to get up at five or six in the morning to start working on the farm. He returned to Walsham and served as captain there. He was a flanker; one side open.
“Hilly was younger and doing well at the time, so that’s part of the reason he left, because Hilly started to take his place. There’s no shame in that!
“As a child, I was always told that no one hits harder than my father. He used to run around and punch as many people as he could. I don’t know if his strength was transmitted; he is a little stockier than me.
Van Poortvliet’s great-great-grandfather moved from Holland to Norfolk before World War I. But none of his relatives speak Dutch now and Jack has never even visited the country. “All I know is that Poortvliet is a Dutch village and van means ‘de’,” he said.
The same farm has been passed down from generation to generation ever since. The England No.9 plans to start a degree in agribusiness soon – after postponing an earlier offer to study at Newcastle University – with a view to taking over the farm one day, after quitting playing. Considering he’s 21, that’s a long way off.
Despite being left out of the match day squad for the Premiership final, Leicester protege Van Poortvliet still got a call-up for Eddie Jones’ tour – while feeling the worst comfortable after the title winners party.
Eddie Jones gave his players two days off to recuperate after their win on Saturday
Van Poortvliet was on high alert. “I got a text from Charlotte (Gibbons), the England team manager, saying ‘Pack your bags just in case,'” he said.
“We had a night out in London on Sunday and I was told I would find out that night if I was in the squad or not, but I didn’t. I was in the pub, had a big cock with the boys, checked my phone every half hour.
“I woke up hungover on Monday morning. I was wide awake by seven, twiddling my thumbs and wondering if I was coming here or not.
“I don’t know if that’s still how it works, but I discovered a ping on my phone saying ‘Australia 2022’ whatsapp group. Then it was about making sure I was awake and on it. We trained on Monday so I had to take a few cold showers to get ready!
“It was a crazy few days. Everything happened so fast.
Having been selected as an “apprentice”, Van Poortvliet was quickly promoted out of that development category.
Van Poortvliet has scored 35 points in three years and 48 appearances for Leicester Tigers
He was on the bench in Perth, made his debut and scored a late try. A week later he was a starter in Brisbane and played with the confidence of an established Test player.
His orders from Jones were to mind his basics and be himself. He adamantly did as he was told, kicking to telltale effect, passing sharply and firing repeatedly.
Watched by his mother Sarah and sister Claudia, as well as his father Jeff – who caught a last-minute flight – the newcomer seized his moment. His family was emotional during the anthem, so how did he feel?
“I was just like, ‘This is what you dreamed of – this is where you always wanted to be,'” he said. “I wanted to sing the anthem and play for England ever since I watched the World Cup in 2003 when I was two years old.
“So while I was singing, I thought, ‘I’m living my dream here. Cherish it and enjoy it. It was a special moment.
“I loved being part of this tour. I didn’t expect it and just tried to throw myself into it. It would be even more fun if we got it 2-1 and got the win.
Van Poortvliet has come a long way: from that cow field in Norfolk to the edge of a historic feat on the other side of the world.