Champions Cup victory would put Van der Flier in pole position for the European prize | rugby federation
SCuriously, it’s been 10 years since an Irishman was last crowned European Player of the Year. The list of past winners is impressive – Antoine Dupont, Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, Jonny Wilkinson – but an Anglo-French duopoly has existed since 2012 when Leinster, Ireland and Lions full-back Rob Kearney won the award.
This time around, the all-action Grégory Alldritt will be a big favorite if La Rochelle win the Champions Cup final on Saturday in Marseille. If Leinster win, however, they have three strong shortlisted candidates in Caelan Doris, James Lowe and Josh van der Flier. It is no disrespect to the excellent Doris and Lowe to suggest that the latter would be a worthy winner.
Because 29-year-old Van der Flier – pronounced as “fear” rather than “liar” – has been comfortably the most improved player in the Northern Hemisphere for the past 12 months. This time, a year ago, he was conspicuously overlooked during the British and Irish Lions’ tour of South Africa; if chosen this week, he would be almost inked in the back row of the test.
If there’s been a recurring image throughout this season, aside from the blue shirts of the conquering France national team, it’s Van der Flier’s unmistakable red headgear, either leaping over and over on the opportunities for breakdowns, or pointed out by television. cameras as the man of the match. He wasn’t named Irish Player of the Year this month on a whim.
So what did he suddenly start having for breakfast? The flanker seems to appreciate the joke – ‘I wish there was a little spinach I could put it down to’ – but the biggest difference is how he now approaches the game. There was a time when he might get bogged down in details and be so obsessed with not making any mistakes whatsoever that he began to limit the overall contribution he could offer.
Instead, encouraged by Australian international striker Scott Fardy, he made a deliberate effort to try to relax more. The transformation that followed was striking. “I guess I tried to develop my game a bit – to demand the ball more in attack, to get a bit more range and involvement and to have a bit more impact in defence. In the past two years I’ve probably made more mistakes than ever, before I would have been pretty strict with myself, just doing my part and doing simple things.
A simple lesson from former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw’s autobiography also helped. “At first, like me, he would be disappointed if he didn’t get any turnovers in a game. But after a while he started measuring himself more by how many chances he took. You might getting three turnovers but that might actually be a bad result because you should have had 12. That approach to rugby and performance has definitely helped me, otherwise you end up chasing.
Van der Flier, born in Wicklow, whose Dutch grandparents moved to Ireland in the 1950s to open a radiator factory, also cites the contribution of former England head coach Stuart Lancaster, now a cog in the key training at Leinster.
“He has a huge focus on improving individual players. He’s been an incredible asset, certainly to me because he’s a former No.7 himself. Stuart leads a lot of our day-to-day training and his knowledge of the growth of a team and an organizational culture, as well as [head coach] Leo Cullen has been great for us. I learned a lot from him.
Most of the credit, however, clearly goes to Van der Flier himself. “A year and a half ago I was kind of on a rotation with Will Connors, who was starting a lot of games. It really pushes you. You have to be better or people are going to pass you.
Since last year’s Lions squad was named, it’s telling that he has been on the winning side in 22 of the 24 games he has played. And here is now, an international of 40 selections who rubs shoulders with the crème de la crème of European rugby. If Leinster secure a fifth win in the competition, their red-hatted flanker will be a big reason why.