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Fit and firing Josh van der Flier looking to play 'old-school seven role'
The 25-year-old has returned from a long-term ACL injury in impressive fashion.

Murray Kinsella reports from Chicago

IF YOU THOUGHT Josh van der Flier’s tackling was looking particularly sharp in the early stages of this campaign, the statistics certainly back up your impression.

The 25-year-old has never struggled in defence but appears to have stepped his tackling up to another level, completing 69 tackles and missing just two so far this season for a completion rate of 97%.

Van der Flier’s quality in the tackle – which is clear in more than just numbers, but also in impact - is one part of his impressive return from the long-term knee injury he suffered back in February of this year.

Josh van der Flier, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose at the Blackhawks training centre Dan Sheridan / INPHO Van der Flier with Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose at the Chicago Blackhawks' training centre. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The ACL tear came in the first half of Ireland’s dramatic Six Nations victory against France, with Dan Leavy coming in on van der Flier’s place to help Joe Schmidt’s team to get rolling in their Grand Slam-winning run.

Watching on as Ireland enjoyed that success and their series win in Australia in June, as well as being forced to sit out Leinster’s double last season, was difficult for van der Flier, but he quietly kept his head down and vowed to come back a better player.

The evidence so far this season is that van der Flier has achieved as much, with his form earning him a place in Joe Schmidt’s squad for the November Tests.

Van der Flier is now hopeful of starting against Italy on Saturday in Chicago as he sets out to make up for lost time in Ireland colours.

With the likes of Sean O’Brien and Rhys Ruddock now also fit again for Schmidt to pick, the back row competition looks even stronger than ever.

“Will Connors might be the only back row injury I can think of in Leinster at the moment, then there’s obviously Tommy O’Donnell in Munster, it was unfortunate to see him go down,” said van der Flier in Chicago.

“But it’s incredibly competitive in the back row. For me, any chance you get you have to play the best you can. If you don’t, you won’t play again. It pushes you to be better.”

Van der Flier is best-known as a work-rate forward whose fitness allows him to rack up record-breaking tackle counts of 34 and make powerful carries, but he has pushed himself to develop his game in an attacking sense.

Josh van der Flier Dan Sheridan / INPHO Van der Flier in the gym at University of Illinois in Chicago. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

He has passed the ball 12 times in his five starts for Leinster this season, as well as completing two offloads, and hopes to bring that dimension into Ireland’s November Tests too.

“During that period out injured, I was walking after a week or two,” said van der Flier. “Once you’re doing that, you can practice your handling. Even standing still, doing a bit of passing stuff, then back into skills and getting good exposure to it.

“It’s something Leo [Cullen] and Stuart [Lancaster] had said to me – about trying to get my hands on the ball a bit more, play a bit more of a link role because that’s kind of the old-school seven role, being the link, getting the odd pop and playing it to the backs. It’s something I’ve been trying to work on.”

Former Wesley College student van der Flier also feels he has returned from his injury with a stronger understanding of the intricacies of the game at the top level.

“When I got injured, the Leinster coaches had given me a few tasks, like presenting to the back rows on their opposition back row that week, or looking at defensive stuff and helping out the lads who were playing. 

“Doing that level of analysis definitely helped me pick up a few things. Even watching games, you’d pick up on things or in meetings what the coaches are saying, you’d write that down and go away to work on it.

“Whereas when you’re in the middle of a match week, someone would be like, ‘You need to run this line better’ but it’s hard to bring that into the game. I had six or seven months to be able to think through those things in my head.”

And van der Flier’s ability in contact also seems to have improved despite being out of the game for seven months as he rehabilitated from the ACL surgery.

He says there was the usual mental hurdle to overcome when he got back on the pitch, but he’s already playing without fear of re-injury.

Josh van der Flier at the Blackhawks training centre Dan Sheridan / INPHO Van der Flier at the Blackhawks' training facility in Chicago. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“I think there was [a mental hurdle] coming back in pre-season,” said van der Flier. “The good thing with the longer-term knee injuries is that you get to train for a few weeks. I was training for maybe a month or so before I played. 

“I’d done everything – clashed knees with people, caught the odd knock – and then you do your contact stuff training away with [contact skills coach] Hugh Hogan working on tackling. Once you’ve done it all live in training, you forget about it then. 

“Hugh’s always been brilliant and I’ve always tried to work on my technique to make it as good as possible. It’s something I tip away on every week, not doing a massive amount, but a couple of minutes here and there. That builds up throughout the season.”

Now back in Chicago, where he helped Ireland to beat the All Blacks in 2016, van der Flier hopes to underline his growth as a player to Schmidt.

Having replaced the injured Jordi Murphy in the back row that day two years ago, van der Flier has very fond memories of Soldier Field.

“It was just incredible to be involved then,” said van der Flier. 

“The atmosphere in Soldier Field was one of the biggest things, I couldn’t believe the amount of Irish people there. Hopefully, it will be like that this weekend.”

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