It has been a long road back to full fitness, but nine months after Josh van der Flier ruptured his ACL, the flanker is ready to return to the international stage.
The serious injury which he suffered in the first half of the dramatic Six Nations win over France cost Van der Flier the rest of the season as he was forced to watch Ireland go on and win the Grand Slam as well as Leinster claiming an historic double.
The 25-year old’s professionalism is renowned within the Leinster squad and the relentless manner in which he has fought his way back won’t have come as a surprise to anyone.
Van der Flier looks leaner, yet he remains as dominant at the breakdown and explosive around the pitch.
Watching such a successful season for both club and country from the sidelines was not easy however.
“It was tough,” Van der Flier said at Ireland’s team hotel in Chicago.
“It didn’t get easier but I tried to accept really quickly that that’s the way it was and what I could work on. You’re trying to come back a better player.
“No matter how much you try to be good with your mindset, it’s always tough seeing other people out on the field when you wish you were out there. That’s sport.”
Van der Flier has played six times this season for Leinster, including starts in both Champions Cup games.
His form has been such that Sean O’Brien has been struggling to get into the team and while the Tullow native is still working his own way back to full fitness, van der Flier knows the importance of making the most of every opportunity he gets.
“I’ve been feeling really good actually,” the Wicklow native maintained.
“The physios and all did a great job with the coaching staff to get me back ready. When I came back I was ready to play. I felt I could have played a few weeks earlier so I was pushing them but it felt really good and I’ve been enjoying playing.
“I think there was (a mental hurdle) coming back in pre-season. The good thing with the longer-term knee injuries is that you get to train for a few weeks. I was training for maybe a month or so, doing everything, before I played.
“I’d done everything – clashed knees with people, caught the odd knock – and then you do your contact stuff training away with Hugh Hogan working on tackling. Once you’ve done it all live in training, you forget about it then.
“When I got injured, the Leinster coaches had given me a few tasks, like presenting to the back-rows on their opposition back row that week, or looking at defensive stuff and helping out the lads who were playing.
“Every week you would do that analysis of the opposition anyway, but doing that level of analysis definitely helped me pick up a few things. Even watching games, you’d pick up on things or in meetings what the coaches are saying, you’d write that down and go away to work on it.
“Whereas when you’re in the middle of a match week, someone would be like, ‘You need to run this line better’ but it’s hard to bring that into the game. I had six or seven months to be able to think through those things in my head.
“We do a good bit of skills in training and having that period out injured, I was walking after a week or two. Once you’re doing that, you can practice your handling. Even standing still, doing a bit of passing stuff, then back into skills and getting good exposure to.
“It’s something Leo (Cullen) and Stuart (Lancaster) had said to me, about trying to get my hands on the ball a bit more, play a bit more of a link role because that’s kind of the old-school seven role, I suppose, being the link, getting the odd pop and playing it to the backs. It’s something I’ve been trying to work on.”
If as expected, van Der Flier gets the nod to start against Italy at Solider Field on Saturday, he is eager to replicate the winning feeling that he enjoyed when Ireland beat the All Blacks at the same venue two years ago.
“We’ve driven past a few Irish pubs and there’s an Irish museum around,” he added.
“It’s pretty cool having that Irish connection to a place like this. Hopefully a few of them turn up on Saturday.
“The more of these games, the better. Chatting to a few of the locals here who maybe don’t know too much about rugby, they seem excited to watch. You expose people who wouldn’t be as used to watching it and that can only be a good thing.”
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