Rewind to the 2021 Six Nations behind closed doors and Josh van der Flier had lost his place in the Irish squad after the opening two defeats by Wales and France.
He had been replaced for the last quarter of both games by Will Connors, who then started the wins over Italy, scoring two tries, and Scotland. They’d had been having a running battle for the No 7 jersey for a year and it looked as if Connors had supplanted him.
On the Wednesday before the final Six Nations game at home to England, Connors injured his knee in training and Van der Flier was restored for that liberating 32-18 win which gave life to the Andy Farrell revolution.
Even then, while Van der Flier had jointly led the Irish tackle count with 10, he’d only made seven metres from three carries before being replaced by Peter O’Mahony. He was almost 28, and it still seemed like Connors might be the future.
But the unlucky Connors has been bedevilled by injuries, starting only two games for Leinster since then. Meanwhile, the 29-year-old Van der Flier has been a player reinvented, and playing the best rugby of his life in the last 12 months, so much so that his nomination on the four-man shortlist this week for the World Player of the Year award which will be handed out in Monaco tomorrow was entirely expected.
There’s no doubt that the competition from Connors was good for Van der Flier, but something in him clicked. While his tackle count was invariably high, and often the highest in the game, his carrying game went on to a new level.
The following July against Japan he scored a try and was Man of the Match, and he carried that on into the 2021-22 season, scoring Leinster’s first try of the season against the Bulls with a jet-heeled 30-metre finish which took the breath away. He hasn’t looked back since.
It seems fitting that a game against Japan was something of a turning point. Think back to how the smaller Japanese forwards invariably steamed onto the ball at absolute full tilt and fearlessly carried into walls of bigger men, and it’s not hard to imagine Van der Flier studying them assiduously on tape.
Of course, typical of such a bright and diligent professional who was never particularly a stand-out player at Wesley College, Van der Flier has always sought to make the absolute most of his ability.
At Farrell’s behest, Van der Flier went away and worked on his carrying game with the help of the coaches at Leinster.
After that Japan game in July 2021, he revealed: “My whole career, I’ve always been trying to tweak things, work my footwork a bit more, that kind of thing. There’s been a few things I’ve worked on but one of them is trying to get up as much speed as I can in the carries. There are times when you’re running into a bit of a wall where you need to get up as much speed and be as powerful as you can into the carry.
“Another thing I’ve been working on is keeping my legs under me, I look at look at lads like Caelan Doris, the way he breaks tackles, he keeps his legs pumping.”
Van der Flier sought advice from the last two contact skills coaches at Leinster, Hugh Hogan and Denis Leamy, and Stuart Lancaster.
“He has been trying to encourage me to carry a bit more aggressively, a bit more power onto it. He has definitely been helpful. Then here in camp, Fogs [John Fogarty] has been great, Paulie [O’Connor] as well. And Robin McBryde as well has helped me on different things.
“I had a bit of bit of a chat during the last pre-season with Denis Leamy around ball-carrying. You get chatting with loads of different coaches and you kinda take little insights from people.”
Yet he also had to train smartly, rather than overdo the extras as he’d done in the past.
“But mainly it’s probably been mentally, looking at different video clips of people ball-carrying and trying to do visualisation around my ball carrying. It’s something I do for my tackling as well and all areas of my game really; trying to rehearse it mentally.”
Even so in the ensuing November Series of a year ago in the wins over Japan again, New Zealand and Argentina, apparently to his irritation Van Der Flier was replaced before the hour mark each time, despite another two tries and a Man of the Match performance against the Pumas.
But all that changed too in this calendar year. Van der Flier played every single minute of the Six Nations and the series win in New Zealand, save for the last eight minutes of the Third Test, and the win over South Africa before his run of 12 successive Test starts was broken when rested against Fiji.
Yet somehow, preposterously, despite playing more minutes for Ireland than anyone else in 2022, Van der Flier is still on a provincial contract rather than a central IRFU deal.
His figures are influenced by maul tries such as the one scored against the Springboks, but prior to that game against Japan in July last year, in 31 Tests van der Flier scored two tries. In the last 13 he has scored seven.
It’s been a similar story at Leinster. In his first 98 games he scored 11 tries. Beginning with that try against the Bulls, he has scored eight in his last 19 games for his province.
But his nomination, along with Johnny Sexton, has been entirely for his performances for Ireland.
“It’s obviously a lovely thing to be nominated for. I’m very grateful for being part of a very good team that’s done well this year with Ireland and Leinster, it’s a very pleasing thing to get,” he said with that charming, innate modesty of his, this week.
“It’s nice to get a reward for hard work, things have gone my way a good bit this year, getting the bounce of the ball here and there. It is strange, we’re in the middle of a Test match week, so it’s obviously a nice thing personally, but you have to switch on pretty quickly to get prepped for Australia.
“If it happened in the off-season, you’d have a bit more time to think over it, but for the moment it’s focusing on trying to put in another good performance as a team this weekend.”
Needless to say, Sexton was more effusive on his teammate’s achievement.
“He has been outstanding, Josh, not only for Ireland but Leinster as well. I noticed the award only comes down to international games and he has been really amazing for Ireland. He has really upped his game. He’s made things part of his game that not many other backrows are doing, and he’s doing it week-in, week-out.
“He has had an outstanding year and it doesn’t look like he is going to slow down. He is still very hungry, driven and the coaches make sure he knows that there is still plenty of room to keep growing.”
Andy Farrell, who described his own inclusion on the shortlist for Coach of the Year as “quite embarrassing really”, said of his two players being nominated: “Well first and foremost, we’re not surprised are we? I don’t think anyone in the room is surprised that those two are picked, maybe one or two others could have [been nominated] as well for the type of year that they’ve had.
“They’d obviously be the first to say that is through their performances and the team’s performances of how the team’s shaped up through the season. Then you look at the individual performances of those two guys and they’ve stood up in every game.
“Their consistency has never dropped below – I don’t know, you never want your team on a bad day to drop below 80 per cent – and I think over the year, those guys have never ever been below 90. Some of them have been right up there on 95 and hopefully we’ll get to 99 this weekend.”
Van der Flier always had a ridiculous engine, or conditioning base. That omnipresent red headgear just keeps on going like a Duracel bunny. But, for the last 12 months since that Japan game, Van der Flier has been impacting games and hoovering up Man of the Match awards.
From being a decent international who was in real danger of losing his place before his 28th birthday, to becoming a genuinely world-class player has been quite the re-invention.
Josh van der Flier, 2022 in numbers, so far