Josh van der Flier: Leinster must work on 'smarter' game to avoid repeat of Saracens showing

Man of the match in the PRO14 final win over Ulster, he found himself looking on from the bench for the biggest game of Leinster’s season a week later
Josh van der Flier: Leinster must work on 'smarter' game to avoid repeat of Saracens showing

Josh van der Flier on the defeat to Saracens: 'Our discipline wasn’t quite there and there were a number of technical things we can touch up'

It’s not even two weeks since Leinster were kicked, shoved and dumped out of the Heineken Champions Cup, but already Leo Cullen’s squad find themselves trying to tune their focus to the new Guinness PRO14 season.

With such a short turnaround they can be forgiven for having one eye on the recent past. The manner of their Champions Cup quarter-final defeat to Saracens left a sour taste which will linger for some time.

It was not the first occasion Leinster found themselves accused of coming up short in a physical battle. Cullen even went as far as saying his team were ‘spooked’ by Saracens' ferocious start at the Aviva Stadium. For a team of Leinster’s quality, that’s quite a statement from the head coach.

Flanker Josh van der Flier is perhaps hurting more than most. Man of the match in the PRO14 final win over Ulster, he found himself looking on from the bench for the biggest game of Leinster’s season a week later, with the perception being European debutant Will Connors would be better suited to dealing with the brute force of Saracens’ Billy Vunipola.

By the time the final whistle sounded, selection headaches had tumbled some way down the list of Leinster’s problems.

“We obviously weren’t good enough,” says Van der Flier, a second-half substitute against Saracens.

“We know we weren’t. We performed very well against a number of very good and big teams (before the Saracens game). "Our discipline wasn’t quite there and there were a number of technical things we can touch up.” 

Conceding 15 penalties didn't help the cause, but the most pressing area of concern is how Leinster were shown up on the physical side of things, although Van der Flier says it is too simplistic to say they were bullied by the bigger team.

“It’s a physical game but you don’t want to do it at the expense of discipline,” he continues.

It’s always a fine balance. So if you’re technically good and you bring that physicality, you don’t need much more.

At 27, the flanker has been around long enough to learn a thing or two about the dark arts of the game. Few teams push those boundaries as shrewdly as Saracens, who have now ended Leinster’s European season two years running, but Van der Flier doesn’t think the province need to drastically overhaul their approach to the big occasions.

“It’s balance. Coming up through the under-age ranks in the Leinster Academy, sometimes I’d be playing seven and you’d have it in your head… I remember one coach used to term it 'a bit of mongrel' - being aggressive. But then I learned coming up the ranks how much it is about thinking as well, doing the smart things and being technically good.

“For example, in the ruck, you can be very aggressive and hit people hard in the ruck. Or else you can just try to get there first. Then there’s no contest at all. That’s an example of being smarter rather than being overly aggressive.” 

Leinster begin their 2020/21 campaign with a home game against Dragons on Friday, with one notable absence on the training ground this week. For the first time in 15 years Rob Kearney will not be part of Leinster’s plans this season, having yesterday confirmed his switch to Australia’s Western Force.

"I always found him giving really clear communication from behind (on the pitch),” Van der Flier says.

“He’d be very organised, always in the right place and would talk you through defending on the edge, he'd be constantly talking to you. So it's that experience he brings, and then always having that security in the backfield that you knew… it was very rare another team would get a kick in behind and he wouldn't cover it.

He's obviously very highly rated but he's under-rated at times, because you don't really realise how good he is until he isn't there and that's just the nature of sport in many ways.

Leinster and Irish international flanker Josh Van Der Flier teamed up with Avonmore Protein Gold in advance of the start of a new season of rugby this weekend. Avonmore Protein Gold, is the latest addition to the Avonmore Protein Milk product range.

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