Simon Lewis, in Chicago
Josh van der Flier was one of Ireland’s heroes of Soldier Field against the All Blacks in 2016 yet he his eager to make amends for missing out on last season’s Six Nations Grand Slam.
The Leinster back-row is in line to face Italy on Saturday as he returns to Chicago, the city where he played a valuable part as a first-half replacement for the injured Jordi Murphy as Ireland carved out a piece of rugby history when they beat New Zealand for the first time in 111 years.
Yet the fate that befell Murphy at Soldier Field that day fell on his team-mate last February as van der Flier suffered a serious knee injury during the Six Nations opener against France in Paris. It sidelined the flanker for the rest of the Grand Slam campaign, Leinster’s push to twin glories in the Champions Cup and Guinness PRO14 and Ireland’s series win in Australia.
“It was tough,” the 25-year-old said of watching his team-mates’ success. “It didn’t get easier but I tried to accept really quickly that that’s the way it was and what I could work on. You’re trying to come back a better player.
“No matter how much you try to be good with your mindset, it’s always tough seeing other people out on the field when you wish you were out there. That’s sport.”
Van der Flier is now in a much better place having started this season with a clean bill of health and now the chance to reflect on some good times in Chicago two years ago.
“It’s nice to be back. Chicago is a cool place and it’s another exciting game. It was just incredible to be involved then. New Zealand are obviously a really good side and I hadn’t played them before.
“The atmosphere in Soldier Field was one of the biggest things, I couldn’t believe the amount of Irish people there. Hopefully, it will be like that this weekend.
“We’ve driven past a few Irish pubs and there’s an Irish museum around. It’s pretty cool having that Irish connection to a place like this. Hopefully a few of them turn up on Saturday.
Another good thing is that van der Flier has an opportunity to win an 11th Ireland cap when the matchday 23 is named on Thursday and stake his claim to an extended run in the Ireland set-up as the 2019 World Cup gets closer.
“I’m delighted to be in those 26 people (from which Saturday’s team and bench will be picked) to travel over and play. Any time you get a chance to play for Ireland, it’s incredibly exciting so I’m delighted to be here and will hopefully get the nod.
“It’s incredibly competitive in the back row. For me, any chance you get you have to play the best you can. If you don’t, you won’t play again so that’s the way it is. It pushes you to be better, which is a good thing.”