Saturday 16 December 2017

Van der Flier fired up to keep place in limelight

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen with Josh van der Flier ahead of last week’s game against the Cardiff Blues
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen with Josh van der Flier ahead of last week’s game against the Cardiff Blues
Josh van der Flier

Marcus Ó Buachalla

Not long after accepting his Man of the Match award last Saturday evening, Josh van der Flier sat in the RDS media room to reflect. The Leinster flanker is new to this set-up.

A first time in front of the Sky Sports cameras. A first time in front of a RTÉ microphone. And a debut in front of the post-match media posse. A first time in the firing line.

He is asked about the opposition, the Cardiff Blues. About their captain Josh Navidi. About inspirational number sevens. About Richie McCaw. About his own performance and what he enjoys about playing with Cathal Marsh. But then the really meaty stuff.

About the difference between Leo Cullen and Matt O'Connor. About expectations and being on the national squad's radar. Like the preceding 80 minutes, he took it all in his stride.

"It was good. I enjoyed it! It's another part of it I suppose that you rarely get exposed to in the Academy but while I wouldn't want to do it every week it's another part to the match day and what you need to prep for."

The former Wesley College student only made his debut last October against Zebre in an 80-minute performance full of energy and intelligence. There was very little attention and no firing line that day.


It was October. Cold and damp. The Stadio XXV Aprile was the venue. A 3-20 win. Ian Madigan and Luke McGrath scoring tries. His debut a mere footnote to the bigger picture stuff.

This though was different. The RDS. Over 13,000 people. Sky Sports. RTé Radio. Family and friends all in attendance. A first home game for Leo Cullen of the new season. All eyes on the men in blue.

"It didn't play on my mind at all actually. I just tried to focus on my job and what I had to do. With the amount of new guys on the team and lads making their debuts over the last few weekends, you knew that other lads were in similar position having similar nerves before the game. So the question is how you channel that nervous energy.

"The way to look at it is that the coaching team have entrusted you with the jersey for this game so that is a huge confidence-booster for anyone in the match-day 23. And if you are not in it you want to be so you work really hard to get there."

Having been left out of the opening weekend match-day squad, you get the sense that the Leinster back-row knows what he is talking about but that's just one battle won in a season of battles.

"We have this week off but then we will back at it and focusing on the Dragons. I think a lot of us can take huge comfort from the last two weekends. OK, the result against Edinburgh wasn't great but in the wider context for this young group the two weeks were a positive I think. With 17 lads away we know that there is a window of opportunity there for us younger lads and we have to make it count."

Leo Cullen has referenced the vigour and the enthusiasm that those younger lads are bringing to Leinster HQ and to the training pitch. As Van der Flier lists off the milestones of the last few weekends, it is easy to see just why.

"It's brilliant for the 17 lads with Ireland. A World Cup doesn't come around that often and I hope they go really well. But it's then on us to also see this for what it is and to go for it every day when we come in to work. This for us younger players or Academy players is also an opportunity that doesn't come around that often. That being said there is huge competition here for spots, in my own case across the back-row, but lads are being rewarded for their efforts definitely.

"Tadhg Beirne, Royce (Burke-Flynn), Ross Byrne and Garry (Ringrose) all made debuts. Others like Ross Molony, Cathal Marsh and Dan Leavy had first starts. Cian (Kelleher) added to his cap from last season. For me, I'm just delighted to be up and running for the season as it was frustrating watching in from the outside at the end of last season with my injury. So we are all getting a chance. We are really positive about where we have come from over the last few months of pre-season and what we have to show. And yet we would love to have two wins on the board so we know that we have a long way to go yet. It's a good start but nothing more."

Perversely, though, is there a sense of impending doom that those opportunities will dry up when the 17 come back?

"Not at all. I suppose our focus for now is very much on this block of games and what will happen after the World Cup will happen. But we want to make it as hard as possible for Leo to give our jerseys to those lads. We have to make that a difficult decision for him.

"Of course with 17 coming back we can't all play but then it's about how you apply yourself. Last season when I was out injured for example I managed to work on additional things, put on some more weight, did more video work and actually had some more time to work with Shane Jennings who has been brilliant with me whenever I have asked for that guidance.


"So it's very much about what you make of it because collectively we all want Leinster to be successful but personally we all want a jersey. Something has to give in that equation. I have to continue doing my bit for the team and that's all I am focused on at the moment."

That of course is a lie. The 22-year-old is only hours away from a flight to Portugal where the body and the mind will relax. That is his real sole focus.

"That's true! It will be relaxed enough as after that I think it's 16 weeks without a break which is a huge block without time off. It's odd as well because you feel like you are just building momentum but we'll be on a break straight away but that's the nature of it this year."

Two games and a 50pc win ratio. Plenty done, more to do.

"I think our focus for Edinburgh and then for Cardiff was on performance. But more than that it was about improving performance and I think we have seen that.

"We are still not quite where we want to be but we progressed week on week and now it's about that same focus going into the Dragons game. They beat us twice last season so nothing easy but we can worry about that next week!"

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