Back to school with JVDF: Injury comeback, beating the All Blacks and exams

BACK TO WHERE it all began for Wesley College’s most distinguished sporting export. Josh van der Flier has come along way since he was the boy in the red scrum cap tearing it up on the pitches out the back, but he hasn’t forgotten the role his alma mater played in getting him to where he is. 

A return to the school where he spent six years as a boarder hasn’t gone unnoticed. The bell for the first class on a Wednesday morning sounds, but students have no intention of being on time. Or going to maths, or French, or accounting at all. Teachers hover and sip coffee as if it’s a staff meeting. All to shake hands and pronounce their pride. 

Back to school: JVDF returned to Wesley College yesterday. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

You don’t have to look far to be reminded of that. On the walls, a photo of the Leinster flanker is one of the first that greets you upon arrival but he is not the only Van der Flier to feature — sister, Julie, has represented Ireland in cricket.

Recently, the college also celebrated the achievement of three other past pupils — Kirk Shimmins, Luke Madeley and Daragh Walsh — as they represented Ireland at the Hockey World Cup in India, and that doesn’t go unmentioned either. Sport is a big part of College life here.

The last time Van der Flier was walking the halls of Wesley after being asked back to present jerseys to the college’s senior rugby team, he received a call from Joe Schmidt. That was 2016 and, on the back of a standout breakthrough season with his province, was called into the national team for the first time. Seems like an age ago, now.

He would make his international debut against England at Twickenham in February of that year, and 12 further caps have followed, although you’d imagine that number would be a lot higher had it not been for that cruel injury blow in Paris earlier this year.

Still, the 25-year-old took it all in his stride, showing the type of commitment and work-rate only he knows in his extensive rehabilitation programme to get back ahead of schedule and play a big part in the November victory over the All Blacks. He made sure the season wasn’t a write off when many would have settled for a New Year return.

“It was my goal to be back for that game,” he says. “But it was kind of looking unrealistic at the start. I was probably looking to get back for the European games after the November internationals.”

When Van der Flier hobbled out of Ireland’s Six Nations win in Paris on 3 February having ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament, his comeback date was closer to December than October.

But through diligence and an unwavering determination to get back as quickly as possible, Van der Flier skated along the process and made a comeback in Leinster’s Pro14 win over Dragons at the RDS in September.

“I knew if I’m fit the week of the Italy game [in Chicago], and that’s my first week back, realistically you’re doing very well to be involved in that having not played for eight or nine months at that stage,” he continues. 

“I knew I had to get back for the European games and for that to get back into the Leinster team, I’d had to have got back a couple of weeks before that. It worked out quite well, I can only be pleased really.”

It was like he was never gone. Injured on 3 February, surgery on 20 February and seven months and a week later, the Wicklow native was as fit as ever, forcing his way back into Schmidt’s squad for starts against Italy and New Zealand.

Celebrating victory over the All Blacks. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

It’s just in his nature to work hard and look for an edge, even through a long layoff.

“Yeah I was doing that [looking for an edge]. I was trying to find different things and I was told when I did get injured, there has never been a better time to be injured because we have the likes of Tom Daly, Ed Byrne, Jordi Murphy and Ian Fitzpatrick who had similar injuries. The Leinster staff had obviously learnt from them.

“A huge amount has to go to the medical staff because there were times when I was like ‘can I run now?’ and they were like ‘no, you’re not running for another month and a half.’

“There are times when you feel like you could definitely walk but they’re telling you to slow it down. My knee felt really stable and strong and I felt like I could almost play, but they were like ‘no, if you go quickly now, it will flare something up and set you back.’”

With his extended family in the crowd at the Aviva Stadium, it was an occasion to remember for Van der Flier, having missed Ireland’s Grand Slam success as well as the Pro14-Champions Cup double achieved by Leinster last season.

Injuries to Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy opened the door for his fast-tracked return but having built up match minutes again, Van der Flier is back to his tireless best, getting through mountains of work on both sides of the ball and further enhancing his reputation as a tackle merchant.

After starting Leinster’s back-to-back Champions Cup wins over Bath, the openside is expected to be rested for Saturday’s Pro14 inter-pro against Connacht and certainly the way the fixture list falls this year, there is opportunity for more time off over Christmas.

“Hopefully have Christmas Day and St Stephen’s Day off,” he says. “You appreciate the time off more. We’ll finish at lunchtime on Christmas Eve and I’ll head back home to Wicklow.”

Leo Cullen’s selection for this weekend will reveal a lot but you’d imagine Van der Flier will then come back into contention for the visit to Thomond Park on 29 December, before Leinster host Ulster for the final Christmas/New Year inter-pro on 5 January at the RDS.

Either way, it’ll be a busy period for Van der Flier as he prepares to submit two portfolio assignments, as well as sit an exam, for his Business Masters degree from Dublin Business School.

“You finish your training and go to the library, tip away at it. It’s a night course, part-time over two years so not too intensive.”

As much as anything it’s a good outlet away from rugby.

“There was someone in my class recently, they were talking about the rugby [All Blacks match] and obviously wouldn’t recognise me without my scrum cap. One of the other guys in the class had pointed it out to him [that VDF played for Ireland].

Van der Flier started against Bath last weekend. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“They said it’s weird to see you in class. A lot of people would think you just do rugby and that’s it. It would be strange for them [to see me in class] I think.”

He can’t keep a low profile around these corridors, however. Even without the trademark red scrum cap. The media liaison signals the last question, as students wait in anticipation in the reception area for further photo opportunities. 

Back to this weekend, and the absurd competition for places in the Leinster back row. Scott Penny the latest talent off the conveyor belt, it must be enjoyable — in some way — to be in that division at the moment?

“It is, yeah. First of all you have to be playing really well every week. You learn a huge amount from those lads and it pushes you on.

“As an example, you’d not be playing one week or on the bench and one of the lads in your position might make some unbelievable carries and get five turnovers and you’re kind of thinking, I need to start doing that.

There was plenty of that between provincial rivals during the brief end-of-year Ireland camp at Carton House earlier in the week. 

“It was funny. You are chatting away to the lads and they are asking, ‘are you playing this week?’ but nobody gives anything away. ‘No, I’m not telling you.’

“We know how good Connacht are. They are obviously a brilliant side and everyone has seen how good an attacking side they are.

“It is going to be a tough game. We know there will be no shortage of motivation at all playing them from what happened last year [at the Sportsground]. 

“It is always like that in an inter-pro. You always want to win those. There is a lot of competition and rivalry.”

Josh van der Flier yesterday launched Ireland’s largest second level business programme for students, the Student Enterprise Programme, an initiative of the Local Enterprise Offices. 

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