Van der Flier pictured at Leinster HQ earlier in the week. Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Tireless Van der Flier not resting on his laurels as he works to become the complete seven

The flanker says he needs to improve the impact he makes with ball in hand rather than ‘just catching it and putting the head down.’

ONE OF JOSH van der Flier’s greatest attributes has always been his tireless work ethic, and unflinching appetite for toil, but simply using those qualities to define him as a player does his all-round game a disservice.

Of course, a lot of the recent focus, and certainly the flanker’s ferocious form, has revolved around his herculean-like performance against Connacht during which he broke a Pro14 record for the most tackles — 34 — in a single game.

And while one of his obvious strengths is a sound tackle technique and the desire and fitness level to make hit after hit, Van der Flier is constantly looking for ways to improve. Along with Stuart Lancaster, himself a former flanker, his creative ability with ball in hand was identified as an area to strengthen.

The former Wesley man admits he doesn’t offer the same physical and ball-carrying presence of someone like Rhys Ruddock or Sean O’Brien, so bringing more dynamism and creativity around the fringes is something he can use to compensate for any size he’s conceding to rivals for the number seven jersey.

“I’ve always worked hard on my fitness,” he says. “It’s been something I kind of have to focus on because the role of a seven — I suppose Richie McCaw made it that way — is that you always have to do as much work as possible. He kind of set the standard there. Everyone is trying to be as good as he was.

“I wouldn’t be the biggest lad, compare me to Rhys Ruddock, Jack Conan, any of those lads. They’d be a lot bigger than me, Seán O’Brien too. So I’m not going to run over the top of people the way they would. I have to bring it in other areas. Work-rate is something I can try to bring in.”

His record tackle count against Connacht on New Year’s Day, coupled with nine turnovers this season, is evidence of Van der Flier’s work and effort in the trenches, but he’s much more than just a destructive force.

There is a lot of focus at Leinster on all players possessing a ball-playing ability and hence the endless work they do on skills such as passing, offloading and handling during the week under the watch of Lancaster.

“The way we’re being trained is that everyone should be able to go on the ball,” the 24-year-old continued.

Josh van der Flier and Tom Farrell The former Wesley man broke a Pro14 record against Connacht. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

“We do a lot of practicing passing, even the forwards as well. We’re kind of expected [to]. If I ended up at out-half — obviously, it never happens but let’s say in phase play the 10 is down and you happen to be standing there — we’d be expected to be able to catch the ball and play a good pass, that sort of thing. It’s expected of us and I think that’s why we’ve had quite a bit of success.

“I think it’s important [to be able to play ball]. Sometimes I get in the bad habit of just catching the ball and head down and carry, whereas sometimes it’s a lot more effective to just give a little tip-on pass or send a wider pass, so it’s something everyone is just constantly trying to work on.”

So becoming that link between the forwards and backs essentially?

“Yeah, it’s something Stuart said to me, he said something I could work on is being more of a link between backs and forwards because that’s traditionally what a seven was.

He said that when he was playing, he’d always try and concentrate on picking a pass when he got to a ruck and a scrum-half isn’t there, to keep the play moving and try and have that fluidity between backs and forwards.”

Van der Flier is expected to return to Leinster’s back row when Glasgow Warriors visit the RDS in round five of the Champions Cup on Sunday having been given last weekend off — presumably told to spend it in a cryotherapy chamber — following his remarkable shift against Connacht.

He recalls: “I remember thinking during the game ‘I’m making a lot of tackles here’ and after the game, I was thinking it was probably my most ever. But I thought it was around the 25 mark. I knew it was more than I had made before so I was pretty surprised afterwards to hear how many it was. It was good.”

But, as we’ve come to expect with a player of such hunger for betterment, Van der Flier wasn’t completely satisfied. The stats may have read 34 tackles made, none missed — but they don’t always tell the whole story.

“I was happy enough,” he admits, modestly, “there were a few…when I first came into Leinster and Ireland U20s, it was ‘no missed tackles, that’s brilliant’. Now it’s kind of oh well you soaked a few tackles, you had a few tackles where you made them and they ended up a few yards past you before you managed to get them down. You can have no missed tackles but a few that get behind you.

“I had a few tackles that I soaked a lot and gave them a good bit of yards or they got an offload away, those kind of things which you’re not too pleased with — there are things I could have done better — but overall I was pretty happy.”

Josh Van Der Flier Van der Flier is in line to start Leinster's Champions Cup clash with Glasgow on Sunday. Oisin Keniry / INPHO Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

Either way, still a physically demanding afternoon’s work.

“I was actually quite sore, yeah, the next day but nothing too bad. It just depends on the game really. I didn’t feel too bad the day after.”

And the Ireland international knows another stern test lies ahead for Leinster’s defence this weekend, with Glasgow — winless so far in the pool, but top of their Pro14 conference — coming to Dublin intent on adding a bright note to an otherwise disappointing campaign with their free-flowing, attack-minded approach.

“They’re a really good side and they obviously beat us in the Pro14 just a week before the November internationals,” Van der Flier adds.

“They’re a really dangerous side, they hold onto the ball well. When we played them over there we missed a couple of tackles and they ran the length of the pitch.

“They’re that good a side, they’re very clinical so we have to be on top of our game defensively.” / YouTube

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