In an unusual way Josh van der Flier’s recent injury might seem more straightforward than that of Irish teammate Robbie Henshaw. Van der Flier will be sidelined for 12 weeks and miss the rest of the season following surgery to his groin, while Henshaw has been injured for seven weeks but continues to struggle with what was originally diagnosed as a dead leg.
Leinster coach Leo Cullen added that following a visit to a UK specialist last week to try to find out why the dead leg was taking so long to heal, Henshaw had a minor procedure. While back training with Leinster, the Irish back is “less likely than likely” to be available to face Ulster on Saturday in Aviva Stadium in the Champions Cup quarterfinal.
Henshaw last played against England in Ireland’s opening Six Nations game with Van der Flier picking up his injury against France. In addition Leinster’s Sean Cronin and Noel Reid were both removed from the match against Edinburgh at the weekend and will follow return to play protocols.
Ross Byrne, who was named to start against Edinburgh but felt tightness in his foot and was withdrawn after Thursday’s captain’s run, will be further assessed this week. Irish lock Devin Toner (ankle) remains a longer term concern.
But despite the length of time out, Cullen believes van der Flier has enough time between the end of the season and the start of the Irish World Cup preparation to contest for a place in the backrow for Japan.
The flanker underwent surgery last week on his groin injury with Cullen advising a long layoff but nothing that should shatter his year’s ambition. The former lock sees the Wicklow 25-year-old doing his rehab then taking a break before targeting the pre-World Cup series of friendly matches Ireland have organised against Italy, England and Wales in Dublin and Cardiff.
“He’ll be fine yeah, from what I’ve been told,” said Cullen. “It’s just tight to get back for anything at the end of the season. He’ll finish the season probably fit and raring to go, I’d imagine.
“Then he’ll take his holidays, build into the pre-season. The World Cup’s next season, which people tend to have forgotten since day one of this season.”
It has been a tough couple of years for van der Flier, who also picked up an injury last season, when he badly twisted his knee in contact during Ireland’s 15-13 win over France. That cost him a lengthy stretch.
“He got injured in the Six Nations against France last year,” said Cullen. “He’s so diligent in everything he does, just a bit of bad luck. That’s the nature of the game. It presents an opportunity for someone else. It’s a tough break for Josh.”
Cullen is currently knitting together a number of bruised confidences following a walloping from Wales at the end of a poor Six Nations Championship. Most of his frontline players have not played with the club since January and all arrive back from Ireland with varying amounts of pitch time, among them Rob Kearney, Jordan Larmour, Johnny Sexton, Garry Ringrose, Jack Conan, James Ryan, Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong and recent injury returnees Seán O’Brien and Dan Leavy.
Ulster will not suffer to the same extent with just hooker and captain Rory Best, winger Jacob Stockdale and struggling lock Iain Henderson among the starting group for Schmidt.
“It’s always a tricky balance,” explained Cullen. “But some guys are coming off the campaign in good spirits having played well. Other guys are. . . what’s going on.
“But that is always the case for us. Guys are pissed off they haven’t been picked so they come back a bit frustrated. They are the guys who often go best when they come back in because they have a real point to prove.
“I think the players all feel that they have a point to prove now. They are disappointed with how the campaign ended. Nobody is denying that, I don’t think.”
Cullen is aware of his side’s terrific record playing at the Aviva. But in Ulster, Leinster face a team whose only away quarter-final victory - in the 2012 season - came against Irish opposition, when they famously defeated Munster 22-16 at Thomond Park.