Josh van der Flier keen to keep adding variety to his game
Flanker has been working with coaches to improve ball-carrying options for Leinster and Ireland
Josh van der Flier has been working with his coaches at Leinster and Ireland at getting on the ball more. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
“Definitely,” says Josh van der Flier. His view, Leinster are an improved team to last years and the year before. That would need to be the case this week with the arrival of Toulon and the Ireland flanker knows it. Not only Leinster, he too has had to become a better player in recent months. At least that’s how it looks through the prism of Irish coach Andy Farrell.
Van der Flier played in the first two Six Nations matches and was left out for Italy and Scotland before again starting in the 32-18 win over England at the Aviva Stadium. From a personal viewpoint the championship was a mixed bag. Much like the Irish performances, some aspects were preferred to others. But finishing on an uptick and win against England was an affirmative way to see the championship in the rearview mirror.
“For me anyway, it’s tough to get a rhythm when you’re game in, game out kind of thing,” he says. “In the seven position Pete’s [O’Mahony] been playing very well and Will [Connors] has been exceptional.”
Connors made his debut for Ireland against Italy last October, where he scored a try and had a team-high 20 tackles, earning him the man-of-the-match. In this year’s Six Nations he scored another two tries against Italy.
“There is obviously a lot of competition there,” adds Van der Flier. “From my point of view, I’ve got to keep putting my hand up, take the feedback I’m given.
“It’s always frustrating watching on. But that’s the way it can go sometimes. It finished well I guess, for me personally, getting to play against England. But it doesn’t always work out that way.”
For optics alone ball carrying is more of a spectacle than hitting rucks. But following conversations with Ireland and Leinster coaches, he was urged to be better at what he is good at and add more aspects to his play. Ball carrying was one of the feedback points.
Over the three Six Nations games, he played for just over an hour in each and made 16 carries for 89 metres. O’Mahony played in two of the games and made four carries for 11 metres, while Connors played in four of the matches and against Scotland and Italy for the full 80 minutes. He carried 20 times for 100 metres.
“I was speaking to Paul O’Connell about it. John Fogarty as well. We had a few good discussions on different ways to carry and how I could improve my game. I’ve been trying to get on the ball a bit more.
“Sometimes I can find myself hitting a lot of rucks. I suppose it’s looking to get myself into that position of being a main ball carrier. I’d be happy enough being like an outside option or running lines out in the back line. But it’s been good to get some ball in hand. It’s something I’ve been working on with Hugh Hogan [Leinster’s contact skills coach].
“Running on to the ball and trying to be as powerful as I can is something I continue to work on. It’s been a focus and it’s been great to get some carries under my belt as well.”
The hope is Van der Flier will have to prolong his work in progress. From the Six Nations to winning the Pro 14 to a knock-out European match and the season could just as easily grind to a halt on Friday as take flight. The Rainbow Cup, yes. But let’s see how that unfolds.
Toulon’s arrival and the real diminution of home crowd advantage will pose a different type of challenge in the RDS, the kind that benchmarks Leinster. Defeat to Saracens last season and Toulouse the season before in the group phase are the matches the players tend to remember.
“Everyone is very, very motivated,” he says. “Something we talk about a bit is learning from past losses and Saracens would certainly be one. The experience [is greater] within the group and among the younger lads who have made their international debuts in the last year or so. We’re coming in with a lot of confidence as well.”
Leinster rarely come in any other way.