The Guinness PRO14 title has been safely returned to its spot in Leinster’s trophy cabinet before there was time for the dust to settle, but Josh van der Flier says the team are already determined to reunite it with an old friend.
For four years now, the boys in blue have been rampant in the PRO14 but Saracens have had their measure when they’ve stepped into the shark-infested waters of the Champions Cup since the final in 2019.
The 2019 champions are no longer in the tournament and, while there are still other contenders like Toulouse, Exeter Chiefs, Munster, Bristol Bears and Racing 92 who will fancy their chances in this unique four-round knockout tournament, the four-time winners look to have it within them to go all the way again.
Tomorrow, they get back on the horse again when Toulon visit for the round of 16 clash at the RDS. Win, and they go away to Exeter Chiefs or Lyon next week before the semi-finals and finals take place next month.
It’s a daunting task, but they showed their quality against Munster last Saturday and now they want to back it up.
“Everyone is very, very motivated,” Ireland flanker Van der Flier said.
“Something we talk about a bit is learning from past losses and Saracens would certainly be in our thoughts in terms of how we prepare.
“We need to prepare as well as we can, especially against a side as good as Toulon.
“Sometimes, when it’s knockout rugby, you can have an unbelievable team turning up no matter who you play and Toulon are a world-class side, they have some incredible individuals.
“From looking at them so far, their individual strengths, they’re a pretty impressive outfit so it will definitely be a big challenge but the motivation is more than there.”
Europe is an all-encompassing goal, the 27-year-old explained.
“It’s a huge focus,” he said.
“It was very pleasing in the PRO14 and it was a challenging campaign all the way through to win that conference and then the final was a tough game as well.
“Coming onto Europe, I suppose it is the pinnacle of European rugby and everyone wants to be standing on the podium at the end.
“That motivation is definitely there.
“Huge desire. One of the big goals at start of every season is to win a European Cup and put a star on the jersey so the motivation is definitely there.
“Everyone is incredibly excited to get going this week already. It’s knockout rugby from here on in.”
Van der Flier missed out on Leinster’s title in 2018, so he has even more motivation for the drive for five.
He endured a frustrating Six Nations, starting the defeats to Wales and France before losing his place to Will Connors for the wins over Italy and Scotland.
Released to Leinster, Van der Flier tore into his task and it was noticeable that he was carrying the ball with renewed venom.
Connors’ knee injury opened the door to an international recall against England and in the final Six Nations game and last week’s final against Munster he kept it up.
“It’s something I’ve looked to try to improve,” he explained.
“I had a good chat with Stuart (Lancaster) and Robin (McBryde) about my ball-carrying and things I can improve.
“I’ve been trying to get on the ball a bit more, sometimes I can find myself hitting a lot of rucks and I suppose it’s looking to get myself into that position of being a main ball-carrier.
“I’d be happy enough being like an outside option for someone or running lines out in the backline but it’s been good to get some ball in hand and it’s something I’ve been working on as well as with Hugh Hogan (Leinster’s contact skills coach).
“Running onto the ball and trying to be as powerful as I can is something I continue to work on, it’s definitely something I can get better at.
“It’s definitely been a focus and it’s been great to get some carries under my belt as well.
“I was speaking to Paul O’Connell about it and he had mentioned it as something that had gone well for me throughout the season.
“He said to keep working on that side of the game.
“Something Paulie had focused on with us was working on our strengths because you can get into habits of always looking at what you didn’t do well and working on that. He was very much driving that if you are good at tackling, then work on your tackling and try and be the best that you can on those kind of things.”
All those chats appear to have worked a treat and Van der Flier will be at the forefront of Leinster’s efforts tomorrow.