It’s easy to forget just how big this weekend will be for the players.
Almost two-thirds of Ireland’s squad have never experienced a Rugby World Cup from inside the tent before while the magnitude of what is about to happen will hardly be lost on those who have been here before.
This is a stage towards which every professional player strives. It is the pinnacle of a playing career and, while the team’s journey will only begin in Yokohama on Sunday, the first whistle will mark the culmination in their quest to make it this far.
Josh van der Flier was only six when the World Cup first shot across his radar. He had played a game with Wicklow Rugby Club on the day of the 1999 final between Australia and England when a tooth that was already wobbling was knocked out.
“I remember watching the final and holding an ice pack to my mouth. I don’t think the ice pack was doing much, it was probably just to make me feel better, but that’s probably my earliest (World Cup) memory, which is strange. I probably wasn’t that interested in the final. I enjoyed the rugby but I probably wouldn’t have known too much about what was going on.”
Van der Flier will likely be central to Ireland’s ambitions of making it back to Yokohama via Shizuoka, Kobe and Fukuoka come the tail end of October when the tournament constricts towards the semis and the greater Tokyo metropolitan area. But that wasn’t always likely to be the case.
Ireland’s strength in depth in the back row has been a hardy perennial for years but the losses through injury and time in general of Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy have placed a strain on a sector where surplus has always outranked deficits and van der Flier stands as something of a protected species as an out-and-out seven in this squad.
Or, as protected as someone like that can be.
“Yes, it’s probably the nature of the position. It’s obviously unfortunate for the likes of Seánie and Dan to be missing out through injury and you want to do it for them given all the hard work they’ve put into this team over the last few years.
“All I can do is focus on myself and try to put as good a performance as I can.”
He is eager to soak in every second. Rewind the tape four years and he was busy establishing himself with Leinster. The season prior had seen him earn his first handful of games with the firsts but after injuries up the ladder had paved the way for him. It was only when Leinster’s dressing-room was swept so thoroughly for players for the World Cup in England that he got a prolonged run in blue.
The following February came the nod from Joe Schmidt and he has rarely let the country down across 19 appearances even if he lacks the extra touch of class that O’Brien had at his best, or the all-round destructive nature of a fit Leavy. Van der Flier is not a David Pocock-type scavenger, what he brings is an unceasing work ethic most noticeable in his tackle count.
Judging a player by such numbers can be fraught with danger, though.
“The main thing I’d be focused on is getting the basics right. Those big moments, the turnovers and big carries. Those are the things everyone wants to do. I’ll try to do the basics first and then see where it get me. That’ll be my process anyway going into a game, then I’ll try to take opportunities when they come. It’s hard with, especially something like turnovers. Sometimes a team goes very, very hard at the ruck in their attack and there’s not always opportunities. So, you can only take each game for what it is and stick to the basics.”