Seven Up

Missing Ireland's Grand Slam drives JVDF on to seize his big chance

The Leinster flanker starred in the victory over the All Blacks and is retained at openside for the visit of England.

THE OPENING WEEKEND of the Six Nations evokes painful memories for Josh van der Flier. He came off the bench during the defeat at Murrayfield two Februarys ago and then, last year, his championship and season was cruelly cut short in Paris.

Having ruptured his cruciate ligament during the first half at the Stade de France, the Leinster flanker had hobbled his way back up to pitch level for the final throes of the game, to witness Johnny Sexton bisect the posts from miles out.

Josh van der Flier Ireland flanker Josh van der Flier. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

While he was able to enjoy that moment with the rest of the Ireland squad, van der Flier was facing into a protracted rehab period, missing out on the rest of the Grand Slam campaign, as well as Leinster’s historic Pro14 and Champions Cup double.

“It’s been a tough time,” he says, reflecting on the last 12 months.

Still, the 25-year-old took it all in his stride, showing the type of commitment and work-rate only he knows in his extensive rehabilitation programme to get back ahead of schedule and play a big part in the November victory over the All Blacks. He made sure the season wasn’t a write off when many would have settled for a New Year return. 

After that exceptional performance against New Zealand, following Dan Leavy’s late withdrawal with a neck injury and Sean O’Brien’s absence after arm surgery, van der Flier started 2019 as the incumbent Ireland openside and wins his 14th cap against England later.

“I think it gave me a lot of drive seeing all the lads playing and winning the Grand Slam and the success that Leinster had,” he continues. “It kind of drives you on a bit. It was a good chance to work on a few other things, get a good platform.

I suppose the plan when coming back from my knee injury was to not be just to survive and get through games. It was to come back ready to play and that’s kind of the way I had hoped it would go. It’s been good to get a good bit of game time and get involved this week.

Since coming back from injury for Leinster against Dragons last October, van der Flier has started all six of the province’s European pool games, and built up his minutes again to start the 2019 Six Nations just as he did the 2018 championship — as Joe Schmidt’s first-choice seven.

With 10 starts to his name for Leinster this term, the former Wesley College student is back to prime fitness and has displayed his outstanding tackling, aggressive carrying, tireless work at the breakdown and improving handling skillset in recent times. 

It speaks volumes of his form that van der Flier held off the challenge of O’Brien for the starting berth this week, while Jordi Murphy has also been performing brilliantly for Ulster.

“If I am not performing at my best, there are lads who can maybe play better than me and that’s the competitive nature of the squad at the moment,” he says.  

Josh van der Flier The 25-year-old will win his 14th cap tonight. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“When you look at the success of the four provinces in Europe especially that last block when we finished with four wins from each of the provinces. If you have that kind of form coming in, of players coming into the squad it is obviously going to be incredibly competitive so I would be more than aware no one’s place is safe.

“It’s about trying to take the opportunity and live in the moment. Obviously, I’ve kind of forgotten about last season. I just put it behind me and just tried to focus on getting a start for Ireland and trying to perform for Ireland. That’s really been the plan.”

Schmidt has kept O’Brien in reserve, with the Ireland head coach hoping he can add real impact off the bench in the final quarter. Van der Flier — knowing there is competition for the jersey breathing down his neck — says he feels ‘lucky’ to be starting.

“Seanie’s been brilliant this week helping me out and making sure I’m happy enough with everything and plays and making sure I’m comfortable as well so he’s been brilliant,” he added.

Obviously he’s a lot bigger than I am so he’s got a bit more force behind him. You look at the way he can run over lads and how physical and strong he is, I probably wouldn’t be quite at that level yet, maybe some day. He’s a brilliant player. I’m delighted to be involved anyway. I’m very excited.

These are the games every player wants to be playing in.

“My Dad always used to get tickets for these big games, yeh, whenever we could we would get down to these games, they were incredible days out,” Van der Flier smiles.

“I remember going to games, watching the game, and you would be in the back garden for the next two weeks kicking the ball about for hours.”

Now he’s got another chance to shine on the big stage.

Simon Zebo joins Gavan and Murray for a special live recording of the podcast in Dublin’s Liberty Hall Theatre to preview Ireland’s Six Nations opener against England:

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