Wednesday 18 September 2019

Van der Flier: I have never even been to Paris before so everything will be very new to me

Ireland flanker is relishing the prospect of facing France for first time in his career

Josh van der Flier. Photo: Sportsfile
Josh van der Flier. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

This weekend will see Josh van der Flier tick a few things off his bucket list; play France, run out at the Stade de France and visit Paris - all for the first time.

With so many new kids on the block, it's easy to forget that Van der Flier is still only 24, and it was just two years ago that he was thrown into the deep end for his international debut at Twickenham.

Yesterday, after the captain's run, the squad were afforded some down time, and they strolled around the city, taking in some of the sights.

For most, they will have seen it all before, but Van der Flier has never even been in Paris before, let alone played France in his professional career.

The flanker's form with Leinster this season and indeed, his performances in each of the nine international caps he has won to date, has been immense.

Competition for places in the Ireland starting XV has never been as strong, particularly in the back-row, even without Seán O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip, but it is testament to how highly Joe Schmidt rates Van der Flier that he was given the nod ahead of Dan Leavy and Jordi Murphy, who has often been the Kiwi's go-to man for big games.

Van der Flier missed the autumn series with an ankle injury, which left him playing catch-up but he is parachuted straight back into the team for this evening's Six Nations opener.

Schmidt is likely to rotate his opensides for the tournament and given that he went with James Ryan over Devin Toner in the engine room, it makes a lot of sense to start with Van der Flier.

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There are plenty of ball carriers in the pack, but Van der Flier brings something different to the party. Quick off the ground, he is a nuisance at the breakdown and that's not to mention his relentless work rate.

With an uncapped 19-year-old starting at out-half for France, Van der Flier will be tasked with making Matthieu Jalibert's evening as uncomfortable as possible.

"They have obviously picked him for a reason," he maintains.

"We had a bit of a look at him and he is dangerous, a really good player. He has good feet, he is a distributor of the ball. He must be nervous and excited I suppose.

"You obviously don't want to give him an easy game whether it is putting pressure on their kicks, the whole team has to do it.

"Traditionally, off the back of a lineout 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.

"It is always exciting playing against new opposition. We will try and put on as much pressure as we can and that's kinda the way we are defending anyway."

Leinster's win in Montpellier recently was the first time that Van der Flier won in France, and while the multi-cultural Top 14 side aren't exactly packed full of French internationals, it was an ideal confidence-booster going into this game.

"I've never even been to Paris so everything is new," Van der Flier explains.

"I'm really excited. The French have broken my heart a few times when I was younger - same as any Ireland supporter.

"'I'm really excited to play at the Stade de France. It's one of those stadiums everyone wants to play in. Paris is meant to be a cool place as well so there are a lot of new things this weekend.

"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."

The blow of missing out on the three games in November was softened by seeing his good friend and house-mate Adam Byrne's hard work pay off, when he won his first cap in the win over Argentina.

The roles are now reversed however as Byrne is on the casualty list and Van der Flier returns to the main stage.

"You obviously miss out on a few things and then you come back in and there's a few tweaks here and there that are different but I suppose it probably made me a bit more hungry to get into the squad," the Wicklow native admits.

"Obviously you're always really keen to get into the Irish squad but when you miss out. I'm living with Adam Byrne and he was obviously in the squad.

"It was tough watching on but it almost makes you hungrier to try get into the squad. It's been great to be back in.

"We're always pushing each other on. I was back in the house there the other day and there was a big bar of chocolate in the middle of the room. I went to grab a piece and they were like, 'Ahhh no! That won't help you on Saturday.'

"That's a fun example but everyone is always keeping each other on track and pushing each other on."

Van der Flier's performance against Connacht in the Guinness PRO14 typified what he is all about as he set a new record by making a staggering 34 tackles.

Perhaps that was what saw him edge Leavy for the starting spot today?

"Maybe it did, maybe it didn't. It's very hard to know," he says modestly.

"I was obviously pretty happy. I had made a good few tackles before but I had never really come close to that amount of tackles.

"It was just the way the game panned out, it wasn't like I was doing anything special. I think if anyone else was in the same position, where a seven is positioned on the field, I just ended up making a lot of tackles.

"I'm sure if Dan was playing, he might have made 40!"

The drive up the avenue of Carton House still brings a nervous excitement but Van der Flier nowadays feels as if he belongs in Ireland's base.

He might not be the most vocal leader, he lets his rugby do the talking, but speak to anyone in Leinster, and they will tell you that few are as dedicated to their craft as Van der Flier.

"I wouldn't say I come in very relaxed. I don't really have big nerves because I know what it's like so it's not that mystery kind of nerves where it's ,'I don't know what's coming here' but it's just more being on edge and ready, knowing you have to be on the ball from the start and train well.

"I was always a big fan of Richie McCaw, watching him as a player but also as a leader as well, he was pretty impressive.

"Maybe he's more natural at it than me, I don't know. Maybe down the line, yeah, it would be cool to be in a leading position but the most important thing is leading by example."

The experience of playing at Twickenham will definitely stand to Van der Flier as looks to carry his provincial form into the international set-up.

"I always wanted to know, 'Am I fit enough? Am I big enough?'" he adds.

"It (debut) was a really satisfying feeling finishing the game and saying, 'I was able for that'. I might not have played to my best but I was able for it. It was good to get that first one out of the way."

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