Wednesday 23 October 2019

'I just feel fortunate' - Josh van der Flier relieved to be back in the fold as the unwanted face weekend of dread

Josh van der Flier. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Josh van der Flier. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Moving day in Carton House.

It's a familiar ritual but these days the humdrum business of packing bags and checking out are loaded with heightened tension.

Some will be moving into the heart of Dublin city, swapping one hotel for another, ever nearer to the Aviva stage that awaits them tomorrow afternoon.

The rest, for this week the unwanted, will have already left before the chosen few, bound for home and a weekend spent with their own thoughts and dreads.

For who knows when they might return?

Already this week, Sean Cronin has seen his chances of returning take a nose-dive; yesterday, confirmation that Lions star Sean O'Brien, one of Ireland's most decorated players, was axed from Joe Schmidt's 23 named to face France.

The Kiwi coach once more reiterated his barely concealed desire to use this championship defence as a testing ground for potential World Cup recruits; even this fortnight of action has been styled as a mirror image of the pool challenges against Scotland and Japan in successive weeks later this year.

Chances will, and have, been offered to many; not all will seize them. Few would contemplate that O'Brien, so stirring against England and robust against Scotland, might suddenly fall out of favour.

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But if he had been searching for clues in the hotel he vacated so forlornly yesterday, the words emanating from his master's mouth would not have been entirely encouraging.

“The problem for Sean is that he hasn’t really had too much rugby and he was not happy with his performance against Italy,” said Schmidt.

"He came on against England and he made a really positive impression and there's a temptation that you bring him in and he comes on and he makes a positive impression again. I thought he did well against Scotland as well.

"So it's not like he is not in our thinking. None of the players we have utilised so far are not in our thinking.

“Unfortunately, later in the year you have to trim that group to a very small group of 31 but at the same time any one of those 31 can pick up an injury in the last couple of games.

“You need to have, we believe, 45 to 50 players who are going to be on the same page and at least partially prepared to step in and fill in."

Hope for some, at least.

And so Josh van der Flier starts at seven, as he did against England, alongside the revived CJ Stander with only Peter O'Mahony retaining his place.

Of all the back three players -including utility options like Iain Henderson or Tadhg Beirne – the Munster captain has featured more often than any of his colleagues in the last ten matches under Schmidt.

Dan Leavy's worrying calf injury – he reportedly increased his running load this week which is heartening – removes another piece from the incomplete World Cup jigsaw; Rhys Ruddock is also missing which leaves van der Flier flying the flag for his province in this cut-throat conflict.

“Everyone knows how competitive it is,” he admits. “I was in for the England game, on the bench for the next game and I am desperate to be playing.

“I just feel fortunate, to be honest, to wear the Irish jersey and you kind of take those chances when you can and you work as hard as you can to get those chances.

“I think that's all I focus on rather than looking at am I building towards the World Cup or that kind of thing, I wouldn't really look at it in that way at all. It's just kind of get on the team-sheet and work as hard as you can.”

Work-rate is assumed; van der Flier has become conscious that his shift must be effective, too. Against England, he tackled like a demon but that suited the bruising victors, who thereby ensured he was removed from the breakdown battle; not that he entirely agrees with this inference.

“I didn't really see it that way,” he, slightly, demurs. “I ended up making a lot of tackles and you’re not really involved in the breakdown too much when you’re making tackles. That’s probably just the way the game turned out but I didn’t feel I was being targetted.

“Generally I don't think the back row have done badly at all, Pete's been getting the man of the match every game, so at least he's doing well anyhow.

“There's been some tough games, and maybe teams are targeting the break down a bit more, or else we need to put a bit more work in, it's hard to tell. Overall, I've been happy from what I've seen.”

Perhaps he's chirping the party line; because the numbers and the feel of games betrays his strident defence of his men.

He won't be chasing the numbers, though; sevens thrive on poaches the way strikers feed off goals but experience has taught him that some causes are worth fighting for more than others; slowing down ball in one ruck may prevent him from doing so at the next.

And the next one may be that which punches open the gain-line. In this era of dominant tackles, there may also, it seems, be dominant turnovers; some are more crucial than others.

“I used to kind of get caught up with especially turnovers because that was the big thing for me anyway watching Richie McCaw and David Pocock,” he says of his Antipodean heroes.

“You know that then you see on the TV however many turnovers they got in the game. What actually changed my mindset was that I was reading a bit of McCaw’s book a few years ago.

“He said he stopped looking at the number of turnovers he got but looked at how effective he was with the number of chances he got. That’s probably more the way I’d look at it now.

“Sometimes I might end up going to too many breakdowns. As in I’m not needed and I’m just parked up doing nothing but then I was needed in a breakdown and the ball slowed down because I didn’t get there.

“So I try and read it as I go, make sure where I should be and not waste any time.”

Every second counts when the clock is ticking.

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