Josh van der Flier wasn’t one of those who had a bad World Cup.
Ireland’s starting openside flanker in four of the five games played in Japan, the only day off for the Leinster back row was the most straightforward of the assignments, against Russia under the roof at Kobe’s Misaki Stadium.
He was a central pillar in the team put out to bat by Joe Schmidt who relieved him of duties just the once across the other quartet of fixtures and that was 14 minutes from time on the opening day against Scotland when the win was already in the bag.
Van der Flier made 55 tackles and missed just four for a success rate of over 97% in a position that is invariably at or near the epicentre of the traffic and the madness. He conceded just the one penalty across 300-plus minutes at the highest level.
All of which seemed to count for little enough when he clocked back in at Leinster.
Will Connors and Scott Penny have taken advantage of his time in the Far East. Both up-and-comers availed of three starts apiece as the Dublin club racked up six straight league wins to begin the season so the more established man had no illusion as to the task waiting him on his return.
“It was one of the things watching the games, coming back from the World Cup, I was thinking over the last couple of weeks that if I don’t train at my best or put in a really good performance when I can then I won’t be playing,” he explained, “because the other lads would deserve it because they’ve been playing so well.
“Obviously they’ve got the club to the position we’re in in the PRO14, so they’ve been incredible and it really pushes us on. It was one thing that Stuart (Lancaster) and Leo (Cullen) said to me when I came back, that basically it’s expected that I’d have to perform because all the back row are all playing well. Yeah, there’s a lot more pressure on the position. I suppose there always is.”
Experience and the peculiar nous needed to operate as an openside in elite rugby still counts for so much though and the Leinster coaches duly turned to van der Flier when it came time to name their first European team of the season, for the visit of Benetton to Dublin last week.
He fared pretty well, too. His carrying stats weren’t exactly high during the World Cup, for a variety of reasons, but he managed to get his hands on plenty of ball last Saturday and he was unselfish in setting Jonathan Sexton up for a try when he might have made the lunge for the line himself.
“It was good, there was a good flow to the game,” he said ahead of the round two trip to Lyon. “I thought we attacked quite well and managed to find a bit of space as well, got a few carries in as well, which was nice. It was just the way the game panned out.
“Rory O’Loughlin put me into a nice gap once and then Johnny obviously made a break and passed to me and I got it back to him.
“It was just one of those games when I ended up with the ball quite a bit so I was happy enough.”
Skip back to this time four years ago and it was van der Flier who had just made his first European appearance when he came on in the final quarter and scored a try against Bath at The Rec that ultimately wasn’t enough to prevent a three-point defeat.
Two months later and he would be in a side facing the same opposition with six of his teammates taking their first steps in the competition and two more recording their first starts. Now it’s him and some of those same players who feel the need to be the voice of experience and the guiding hand.
“I think so, yeah. It’s always something I would be trying to work on. At seven you’re off the back of the lineout in defence, you’re defending with the out-half, you need to be talking and kind of leading defensive-wise.
“It’s something I’m trying to work on anyway but definitely with Caelan on his first European start, he was well able for it anyway but I suppose if I can reassure them in some way or make them feel more comfortable, that obviously helps so I’m trying to work on that.”
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