It is a good job Josh van der Flier is a glass-half-full type of character. Only someone of a positive and optimistic disposition could view sitting in the stands in Bilbao this weekend as a sign of progress.
Champions Cup final
Leinster v Racing 92
Saturday: San Mames Stadium, Bilbao, 5.45pm
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
TV: BT Sport, Sky Sports
Bet: Leinster 10/11,
Racing 10/11, Draw 16/1
The 25-year-old flanker will on Saturday be a frustrated onlooker, nine weeks into his rehabilitation from a serious knee injury when his Leinster team-mates walk out at San Mames Stadium for the Champions Cup final against Racing 92.
His comeback from the ligament damage he suffered during Ireland’s Six Nations opening-day win over France in Paris is not scheduled until October or November, though van der Flier is aiming for September so he must sit and watch, just as he was forced to do during his country’s Grand Slam glory run, a Leinster day tripper to the Basque Country.
The province’s last visit to a European final, against Ulster at Twickenham in 2012, came too early for van der Flier to participate. Still in the Leinster academy he had watched the third Heineken Cup success in four seasons unfold from the family sofa rather than make the trip to south-west London.
“I thought it would be a bit painful to watch and expensive to fly over,” he said. “I was at home on the couch with all my family.”
Five years on, still on the outside looking in, van der Flier will feel much more involved as he takes his seat at the San Mames.
“I think they are flying us over on the day which will be incredible. Sure, I was going to cycle over if I had to,” he said. “It will be warmer than my sitting-room anyway!”
Van der Flier admitted watching Ireland clock up the victories in a first Grand Slam campaign since 2009 had been more painful to watch than his province.
“It is tough watching on. I got invited to the dinner the day after (beating England on March 17) and got to hang out with all the lads. It made me feel a bit more part of it. It’s nice being able to be in Leinster, be around the lads all year. It is different to being in (Ireland) camp. All of a sudden, you are out of it and you don’t have a clue what’s going on.
Van der Flier will continue offering his services in the analysis room, starting with his view of the Racing 92 back row his colleagues will face on Saturday.
“(Yannick) Nyanga was incredible against Munster (in the semi-final). He has been a brilliant player for years, a great athlete. (Wenceslas) Lauret at six is an all-round athlete. He does everything really, he is very good in the lineout, good on the ground, a good ball carrier.
“(Bernard) Le Roux at seven is a very good all-round player as well. It will be a serious challenge for whoever is picked in the back row.”
As involved as he can be, van der Flier has his own, more lonely path to tread as he rehabs his injured knee, suffered just eight games into his comeback from an ankle injury picked up in October.
Fellow back-rower Jordi Murphy is a particular inspiration. It was van der Flier who replaced him in Chicago in November 2016 when the starting openside’s try-scoring turn against the All Blacks was cut short after 25 minutes by a season-ending knee injury.
“I’m nine weeks in now, so making good progress. I’m hoping to be back, I’m aiming for September. They told me it would be around nine months which would bring me to October/November time, so I’m aiming for September.
“The way I see it… the actual injury process is in your head. I’ll try to push and get back as quick as I can, try to improve as quick as I can and the physio knows it’s his job to make sure I’m doing everything right to hit the markers along the way.”
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