THE ADVICE PASSED down from his father Dirk holds true now, just as it did after Josh van der Flier made his international debut.
The Wicklow man is facing into a long stint on the sidelines after suffering a horrible anterior cruciate ligament injury during Ireland’s first step towards the Six Nations title in Paris. As a result, coupled with the refixed clash against Scarlets last weekend, he was among the unlucky few players left in UCD to celebrate as Leinster marked 21 years of their School of Excellence summer camps.
Since making his big breakthrough into the Leinster team in 2015 (though his debut came a year earlier), Van der Flier has consistently come across as a genial and positive athlete who has unashamedly been happy to be present on each step up the ladder.
As Leinster’s photoshoot goes on, the flanker doesn’t look like a man less than three weeks removed from knee surgery. His fellow injured cohorts Luke McGrath, Isa Nacewa, Rhys Ruddock, Tom Daly and Cathal Marsh play their part for the promotional pics, but Van der Flier has a gleeful glint in his eye as he tracks the progress of a weighted balloon he has been asked to throw in the air.
Beneath that happy-go-lucky exterior, however, is a steely resolve that only truly becomes obvious when Van der Flier is on the field. The kind of resolve that makes you spring up, ready to put your body in the firing line again when 33 tackles have already been completed.
“Something my dad said to me a while after my first game was: ‘you’ve got to aim beyond it, you can’t be happy with (one),’” the openside remembers of his Test debut in Twickenham, but it’s easily applicable to the steps of the rehabilitation process ahead of him.
“It’s very easy to be happy. When I was in school, I wanted to play for Ireland, but if I was to make the Leinster U19s that would be a success. But obviously you want better than that.
“It would have been easy to say ‘I’m happy with my cap and if I get a few more it’s a bonus’, but he was saying – I like to think I would have anyway – but he was saying to make sure you aim beyond it and try to get better and better. That’s the way I look at it now.”
With ACL surgery behind him, Van der Flier is happy to be back in the building with Leinster and beginning the rehab process.
At present, he is targeting the beginning of next season as his return date and with the flesh healing, the more painful aspect is becoming the matches he is missing out on.
“It’s kind of grand during the week and then once you sit down and watch the games it is tough watching on.”
Tougher still as Ireland secure a title and edge towards history with a provincial team-mate and positional rival excelling in the number seven shirt.
“It’s something you think of when I first got injured: ‘I was working for ages to try and get a start for Ireland and now someone else is going to get a start for Ireland.’”
And the more you see someone else doing the job while unable to even hit a ruck in response, the faster the doubts and dispiriting moods can take hold. Fortunately, in rugby, a team-mate with experience of progessing through the injury is never very far away and Jordi Murphy and Ed Byrne have been valuable sources of solace and encouragment for the 24-year-old.
“Jordi Murphy rang me straight away that night (Sunday after win over France), because he had been through it last year. Obviously there’s not much you can say to console someone but he said: ‘you’ll be back, it’s not too bad and the rehab is fine and it’s a chance to get stronger.’
“I had a sit down with Ed Byrne as well, he was obviously out for about two years with knee injuries. They both said what worked well for them and what didn’t, things to do and things to avoid, that kind of thing.”
“One of the things Ed Byrne said to me when he sat me down, he was really encouraging, he said: ‘Josh you’re good at this, good at that, you’re a good player, no one else can do this…’
He said he found it very discouraging. You see someone doing something unbelievable and you think: ‘aw, I don’t know if I’ll be able to do something like that, I don’t know if I’ll be able to play like that’. You forget.
“He was saying not to read into it, just try and get back as strong as you can, try and get back better than you were before. So that’s what I’m working on.”
“It’s easy to get caught behind, then come back thinking ‘I don’t know if I’m good enough anymore, I’ve been out a year, I’m rusty.’
“It’s just to try and not get down on yourself and then try to come back better. There’s a few things I can work on while I’m injured now; the good thing about the knee injury is that I can get back running quick enough, obviously the contact and matchplay comes a bit later.
“It’s a bit different to an ankle injury, where you’re back running and a week and half later you’re playing. With this, you get a good bit of time between being pretty much ready to go and actually playing.”
More time, more reason, to double down on Dirk van der Flier’s advice and keep pushing for progress.