Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Magnificent 7

Relentless Van der Flier forever chasing sky high standards

The Wicklow man is a natural fit in Ireland’s back row, so it’s easy to forget he is still encountering firsts aplenty in his career.

THE MORE JOSH van der Flier rises inexorably to the top of his game, the more eyebrows he raises when he offers up reminders as to how much experience still awaits him.

With Sean O’Brien injured, the Wicklow man was a relatively straightforward choice to squeeze into the number seven jersey for today’s Six Nations opener against France (kick-off 4.45pm Irish time, TV3). Of course, he’ll point to the intense competition from Dan Leavy and Jordi Murphy, but Van der Flier had all the form and credentials to earn this start. Everything, except that irreplaceable, indefinable virtue of experience.

“I’ve never even been to Paris,” says the 24-year-old, brimming with infectious enthusiasm, “so everything is new. I’m really excited. The French have broken my heart a few times when I was younger – same as any Ireland supporter.”

His stint on the stands long behind him, as an active participant Van der Flier made some strides to move on from his teenage heartbreak. In helping push Leinster to a sixth Champions Cup pool win from six and a first win in France since 2014 in Montpellier last month, he also ticked an important box off his to-do list.

Josh van der Flier Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“That was my first professional win in France. I played in Castres when we drew, played Toulon once there (lost) and played Montpellier there and we lost there as well. So I have drawn once and won once there.

“The crowd is completely different to a crowd here. Much louder, I don’t know if hostile is the right word, but they are a bit more intimidating than what I would be used to. But it’s really enjoyable, it’s a great place to play.”

The smiling Leinster man hints at a possibility of sightseeing while in the City of Lights, Ireland’s team hotel is within spitting distance of Arc de Triomphe, but even a stroll on Paris streets quickly falls way down the list of priorities behind rest, recovery and presumably a little homework on the laptop for the relentlessly diligent Van der Flier.

Pages of his notebook will doubtless feature the threat of 19-year-old out-half Mathieu Jalibert. The electric Bordeaux phenom makes his debut in Stade de France. And Van der Flier will make it his business to make sure they meet early and often.

Rhys Ruddock with Josh van der Flier Debut day: Van der Flier gets an encouraging pat from Rhys Ruddock. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“Out-halves are normally quite confident,” says the more bashful flanker, shunning a comparison to the nerves felt on his own Test debut in Twickenham two  years ago.

“They have obviously picked him for a reason. Had a bit of a look at him and he is dangerous, a really good player. He has good feet, he’s a good distributor of the ball. Yes he must be nervous and excited I suppose.

“You obviously don’t want to give them an easy game. Whether it’s putting pressure on their kicks… the whole team has to do it. It’s not really specific to the back row.

“But I suppose, traditionally, off the back the back of a line-out or whatever the back row would be the man to try and put pressure on so I suppose we will be trying to put as much pressure on as we can.”

Josh van der Flier and Tom Farrell Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

His astounding New Year’s Day performance against Connacht, complete with that record of 34 tackles, had shades of Thierry Dusautoir for some. But for Van der Flier he has always idolised a different magnificent seven.

His Amsterdam-born grandfather nudged him towards a love of Ajax and Johan Cruyff, but in rugby his gaze was naturally drawn to another hard-working openside with a sneaky love of the dark arts.

“I was always a big fan of Richie McCaw,” Van der Flier offers after an inquiry about his aspirations to lead his pack, “watching him as a player but also as a leader as well, he was pretty impressive.

“Maybe he’s more natural at (leading) than me, I don’t know, but obviously it’s incredible to get to play with your team-mates but to be a leader among them is pretty special as well.

“So maybe down the line, yeah, it would be cool to be in a leading position but the most important thing is leading by example. I don’t know if I do that, you’d have to ask my team-mates, but that’s something I’ve kind of worked to, leading that way.”

On the field, off the field; van der Flier never stops working. He still has plenty of experience to pick up, but he has earned the right to set his standards next to very best.

- This article was updated at 9.11am to correct the kick-off time of today’s game.

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