yesstrangely it is 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 Rob Kearney, the Leinster, Ireland and Lions full-back, collected the award.
This time around the all-action Grégory Alldritt will be a warm favorite if La Rochelle win Saturday’s Champions Cup final in Marseille. Should Leinster prevail, though, they have three strong shortlisted contenders in Caelan Doris, James Lowe and Josh van der Flier. It is no disrespect to the excellent Doris and Lowe to suggest the latter would be a worthy winner.
Because the 29-year-old Van der Flier – pronounced as in “fear” rather than “liar” – has been comfortably the most improved top player in the northern hemisphere these past 12 months. This time a year ago he was conspicuously overlooked for the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa; if he it was being picked this week he would be all but inked into the Test back-row.
If there has been a recurring image across this season, aside from the blue shirts of the all-conquering French national team, it has been the unmistakable red headgear of Van der Flier, either pouncing repeatedly on breakdown opportunities or being singled out by the TV cameras as the man of the match. He was not named Ireland’s players’ player of the year this month on a whim.
So what has he suddenly started having for breakfast? The flanker seems to enjoy the joke – “I wish there was a bit of spinach I could put it down to” – but the biggest difference is the way he now approaches the game. There was a time when he was in danger of becoming so bogged down in detail and so obsessed with not making an error of any description that he was starting to limit the all-round contribution he could offer.
Instead, encouraged by the Australia international forward Scott Fardy, he made a deliberate effort to try and relax more. The subsequent transformation has been striking. “I guess I’ve tried to grow my game a bit – to demand the ball more in attack, get a few more carries and involvements and have a bit more of an impact on defense. In the last two years I’ve probably made more mistakes than I ever have. Before I’d have been quite strict with myself about just doing my role and doing the simple things.”
A simple lesson gleaned from the former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw’s autobiography has also helped. “Initially, like me, he’d be disappointed if he didn’t get any turnovers in a game. But after a while he started to measure himself more in terms of how many opportunities he took. You could get three turnovers but that could actually be a poor result because you should have had 12. That approach to rugby and performance has certainly helped me. Otherwise you just end up chasing.”
The Wicklow-born Van der Flier, whose Dutch grandparents moved to Ireland in the 1950s to open a radiator factory, also cites the input of the former England head coach Stuart Lancaster, now a key coaching cog at Leinster.
“He has a huge focus on making individual players better. He’s been an incredible asset, certainly for me because he’s an ex-No 7 himself. Stuart runs a lot of our day-to-day training and his knowledge of him around growing a team and an organizational culture, along with [head coach] Leo Cullen, you have been great for us. I’ve learned a huge amount from him.’
The bulk of the credit, though, clearly goes to Van der Flier himself. “A year and a half ago I was kind of alternating with Will Connors, who was starting a lot of the games. That really pushes you on. You have to be better or people are going to overtake you.”
Since last year’s Lions squad was named, tellingly, he has been on the winning side in 22 of the 24 games in which he has played. And now here is, a 40-cap international rubbing shoulders with the crème de la crème of European rugby. If Leinster do secure a fifth victory in the competition, their red-hatted flanker will be among the main reasons why.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism