‘Stuart told me to be more demanding of the ball… that I should be getting a bit more involved’
Josh van der Flier is working on taking his game to the next level.
DESPITE BECOMING AN established figure for both Leinster and Ireland in recent seasons, Josh van der Flier has been taking steps to improve his game since returning from last autumn’s World Cup.
After starting in four of Ireland’s five games in Japan – the pool stage victory over Russia being the exception – his selection in Andy Farrell’s squad for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship came as little surprise.
Nevertheless, the Wicklow man is doing all within his power to nail down an openside flanker spot at the provincial and international grades.
“I probably wanted to get a bit more ball carrying into my game,” van der Flier acknowledged. “I had a chat with Stuart [Lancaster] when I came back. You might have seen it in some games last season, or at the World Cup, where I found myself on the edge quite a bit, out wide and not really getting that involved.
“Stuart told me to be more demanding of the ball. You end up wide because the backs are gone in the middle in the rucks or whatever, and someone needs to be in the space. He was happy that I should be getting a bit more involved and get a few more carries under my belt. That was something I was definitely trying to work on.”
Yet having shed weight in the weeks leading up to the tournament – bringing him down to his current size of 107kg – van der Flier doesn’t feel it is necessary for him to be a mirror image of South Africa’s World Cup-winning back row.
“The World Cup was probably the lightest I’ve been. I find it tough to keep my weight on anyway, but it was probably the lightest I’d been playing competitive matches in three or four seasons before that. It wasn’t on purpose, but then I actually felt really good once I started playing a bit lighter. Felt a bit sharper, bit more explosive.
“It’s getting that balance. You don’t want to be slow and heavy. You don’t want to be too small, but you’re probably a bit quicker then. Last season, if I was playing with Rhys [Ruddock] and Jack Conan, they were about 10 kilos heavier than me. Sometimes I’d feel like ‘Oh, I should be up at that size’, but then I’ve had a good few chats with Stuart about it and Leo [Cullen].
“They’re happy that if I’m playing 7, I have to be a bit quicker around the place. More energy. As long as I bring that… If I’m slow and sluggish, and I’m light, that’s no good to anyone. If I’m going to be light, I have to be quick about the place.”
In the absence of so many frontline stars, van der Flier used the 2015 World Cup as a springboard to break into Leinster’s senior squad. The shoe was on the other foot at the beginning of this campaign with the likes of Scott Penny and Will Connors stepping up to the plate while the 26-year-old was in Japan.
Even allowing for injuries to Ireland internationals Jack Conan and Dan Leavy, competition remains intense at the back of the Leinster scrum. As well as appreciating his rise from youthful prospect to professional stalwart – he now has 80 provincial caps under his belt – van der Flier has embraced his need to produce top-level displays each week.
“From the 2015 World Cup, everyone was ahead of me and older than me. Now there’s lads coming up who are younger than me, which is very different. The lads have been playing incredibly well and it just means for me that I have to be better than ever and keep getting better than I have been before. I don’t know whether I’m doing that or not, but I have to try my best anyway.
“You see Jack Conan and Leavy rehab in the gym and you think ‘they’ve got to come back in as well’. It’s mad competitive really. I just know I have to be training as well as I can and put in my best performance every week. At 7, the likes of Scott Penny, Will [Connors], Deego [Max Deegan] when he plays it. They’re all pretty impressive.”