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Saturday 28 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
Billy Stickland/INPHO Van der Flier at this week's URC launch.
# Next Level
'They had me in a Munster jersey and a red scrum cap in Killarney!'
After a summer of good times, Josh van der Flier is out to keep up his scintillating form.

THE SURPRISING THING is that a photo somehow didn’t make its way onto WhatsApp groups around the country.

Peter O’Mahony wasn’t so lucky – his Leinster rig-out made it into the public domain -  but Josh van der Flier managed to avoid a picture of him in Munster gear getting a wider audience after his stag during the summer.

“They had me in a Munster jersey and a red scrum cap in Killarney,” explains van der Flier with a big smile.

“I probably lasted about two hours and then it was like, ‘Just go and get changed’ because I was terrified in the corner – don’t get photo’d!”

Van der Flier was also coerced into dressing up on the last night of Ireland’s tour of New Zealand in July, the wider squad taking it upon themselves to organise costumes for a small crop of players who had their weddings ahead.

“I think I was in a priest’s outfit but it lasted about 10 minutes and then I was like ‘I’m not wearing this.’”

Vand der Flier got married to his partner Sophie in August after a season in which he was named European Player of the Year and won plaudits from all corners of the sport. A strong autumn with Ireland and the 29-year-old will be right in the mix for World Rugby’s Player of the Year award.

The past two years have seen van der Flier go from an already impressive Leinster and Ireland player to being one of the best in the world. He was in high demand at the URC launch earlier this week and admits to noticing the increased public attention. It has been apparent on the pitch too.

“There’s a few things that make you realise people would know you more, opposition players,” says van der Flier.

“In a rugby context, I certainly felt a bit more targeted, I guess, a few bumps off the ball so it felt like someone has had a word with someone about trying to get after me!”

The raised profile hasn’t left van der Flier with an inflated ego, though. He remains one of the most down-to-earth and polite professional rugby players this writer has come across.

josh-van-der-flier-and-mack-hansen Photosport / Grant Down/INPHO Van der Flier in action against the All Blacks. Photosport / Grant Down/INPHO / Grant Down/INPHO

While others have been showering him with praise, van der Flier has had to learn to go easy on himself.

“I’ve always been quite critical of myself, I guess,” he says.

“That can be bad when you’re not doing well, then it can become a negative spiral. But then it’s good when things are going well.

“Last year especially, people would say, ‘Oh, you did really well’ and I’d say thanks very much, but in my head I’d be like, ‘I had two opportunities to get a turnover at a breakdown and didn’t get any’ or ‘my line of running was wrong and it was my fault that ruck got turned over’, this sort of thing. I think that helps.”

He says the quality of fellow Leinster back rows like Scott Penny and Will Connors keeps him on his toes, never mind the battle for spots with Ireland. As he’s talking, you think about how much those guys must be motivated by chasing van der Flier now.

Along with the self-critical streak, van der Flier was often very intense when it came to playing in the past. He would get stressed and end up being in his own head too much during games.

He comes across as more relaxed on the pitch these days.

“It’s interesting you say that,” agrees van der Flier. “I remember Scott Fardy said it to me. He’s Australian and I spoke to George Smith a few years ago and he seemed to have a similar attitude – Scott Fardy would just be like, ‘Relax and play the game.’ That would be very much his style.”

Building strong technical habits has been important to van der Flier, allowing him to act without overthinking out on the pitch. It’s almost like getting into a flow state. 

“I’ve just tried to go out to games completely relaxed and do what comes instinctively to me and just completely… relax,” he continues.

“Along the same lines, before a game, I used to be really not joking with anyone. It was all about there being a game now, listening to my headphones. If I forgot my headphones, I’d be thinking, ‘Ah no, I always listen to music before the game.’

“Whereas now, probably the last three years or so, I would be chatting to the 24th man or reserve players and asking if he has any jokes for me. I try to keep it real casual and relaxed as much as I can and that’s something I’ve found has worked really well for me and allowed me to be more relaxed.”

Van der Flier has provided a more complete game for Leinster and Ireland in the past two years, which is only natural as a player matures and improves.

But it’s also down to van der Flier being in that more relaxed state.

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“I think I’ve gone through different phases, so there were times when I was only concentrating on tackling and I was never trying to get ball carries because I’d always be playing with Sean O’Brien or Rhys Ruddock or these kind of lads.

josh-van-der-flier Dan Sheridan / INPHO The 29-year-old was European Player of the Year last season. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“So I’d be happy enough to… like if there I was a pod of three lads, I was happy enough to go on the inside and hit the ruck.

“That was something I went through maybe three years ago whereas the last two years I’ve been trying to get more ball-carrying into my game.

“I’ve always tried to work on a bit of everything all the way around but like what I said about the relaxing and enjoying the game more and not overthinking it, I’ve found myself doing a few more of those bits.

“Kicking’s still not on the resume yet, maybe this year!”

It has all come together nicely for van der Flier and he is excited to get going again this season, even if he will be a marked man. 

The flanker is confident that Ireland can continue to improve under Andy Farrell, while he points out that Leinster are now in the position of chasing down others after disappointment in the URC and Champions Cup last season.

“The last few seasons with the URC, it’s been like, ‘Everyone’s hunting us, everybody’s going to be copying the way we’re playing, people are going to evolve their game to beat us because we’re the target.’

“Whereas now, we’re thinking, ‘Well, what can we do to beat the Bulls, the Stormers, because they were in the final, to beat La Rochelle?’

“I thought if you took out the ones we lost – the Bulls and La Rochelle games – we had a brilliant season, loads of good games throughout.

“So it’s easy to be like, ‘We need to change everything’ or ‘We need to change lots’. It’s important we take the things we did really well and then make a few adjustments to work out how we can execute on winning those games.”

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