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Van Der Flier: A Brilliant Start, But Step-By-Step Approach Is Key

Van Der Flier: A Brilliant Start, But Step-By-Step Approach Is Key

Josh van der Flier is pictured during Ireland's 38-17 bonus point victory over France in Marseille ©INPHO/Ben Brady

Josh van der Flier has been here before. Roll back six years to the start of the 2018 Men’s Six Nations and the late drama provided by Jonathan Sexton’s magical, match-winning drop goal at the Stade de France.

Clearing the first round hurdle of France away gives a team massive momentum, especially when you consider that since a Tom Kiernan-led side were victorious in Colombes back in 1972, Ireland have only won four times on French soil in the Five or Six Nations.

Andy Farrell’s charges were the latest to achieve that feat in Marseille last Friday night, and did so in record-breaking style. 38-17, their biggest score and widest winning margin in an away match against the French.

Van der Flier is one of eight players who played in both the 2018 and 2024 successes. Understandably, given the similar list of fixtures (with just the England and Scotland games reversed), a potential title run could gather pace, but Italy next Sunday is all they are focused on.

“Definitely, yeah (it’s exciting what we could potentially achieve in this Championship),” admitted van der Flier. “I mean, we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, there’s still four big games left so we’ll take it step by step.

“I know we always say that, but it is still the nature of it. We can’t get ahead of ourselves. But it’s a brilliant start, so we have to be very happy with that.

Any team you play away in France, whether it’s club or country, it’s always a very hard place to play and to do it for Ireland is a very special day.

“Them going down to 14 men (with Paul Willemse’s red card after 30 minutes) obviously makes it a bit different but (we’re) really pleased. I thought it was a great effort.

“We looked threatening throughout. I thought we attacked really well, and in defence we managed to close them down a good bit. So yeah, very happy about that.”

The experienced flanker agreed that the Ireland squad – including three Six Nations debutants on the night and also out-half Jack Crowley making his first Championship start – will take a lot of positives out of their performance in Marseille.

One of the most pleasing aspects was how they responded to the French tries, one just before half-time and the second one, awarded to Paul Gabbrilagues in the 52nd minute, providing a double blow with captain Peter O’Mahony sent to the sin bin for collapsing a maul.

Calvin Nash and Dan Sheehan cancelled out those scores out in quick fashion, in the 45th and 61st minutes respectively, making sure seven points was as close as the 14-man les Bleus could get.

How Farrell’s men bounced back from those setbacks in a high-stakes encounter was similar to the 2022 New Zealand series when the All Blacks were storming back at them and eating into deficits.

Having the mental strength and resilience to absorb that pressure, counter punch and come back stronger is something they work hard on. To be able to do so in the cauldron that is the Stade Vélodrome made it all the more satisfying.

Van der Flier explained: “(Our mentality) is definitely in a good place. One thing I thought was with the work of (performance coach) Gary Keegan, as psychologist, and the way the coaches spoke about the (hostile) atmosphere, it’s something that we talked about.

“Some lads obviously wouldn’t have experienced playing France away, it’s always a very tough game to play. We talked about France having those good patches in the game where the crowd would be going crazy and you wouldn’t be able to hear anything.

“They’re on top a little bit, and you’re kind of prepared for those things and then the leadership of Pete, I thought he was brilliant.”

He added: “There were times when they scored, the crowd was going crazy and it was getting to be a pretty close game and there wasn’t even a raised voice. Pete was just calm, just telling us to get back into it, and he had given us clear messages.

“I think that was there from a leadership point of view and then, having spoken about it and it’s something that we work on, it’s in a good place.

“But it’s one of those things, you have to keep continually working on it. It’s definitely been a strength of ours, I think, over the last couple of years and we’ll keep working on it.”

It proved to be a memorable night for Nash, Crowley and Joe McCarthy, in particular, with the Munster pair scoring 18 of Ireland’s 38 points, including Nash’s first international try, and Leinster’s McCarthy enhancing his growing reputation with a power-packed player-of-the-match display.

For van der Flier, it undoubtedly brought back memories of his own Ireland debut away to England during the 2016 Six Nations. The Wicklow native was one of three players to win their first caps at Twickenham that evening, along with Stuart McCloskey, and Ultan Dillane off the bench.

“Fair play to Jack. It’s a hard position to play at any time, never mind with the French coming at you hard. He did really well,” he said of Crowley, who is determined to make the number 10 jersey his own.

“Joe was brilliant as always, destroying mauls and running hard, and then Calvin as well did really, really well. I was very proud of the three lads. They really put in a big shift.”

The 2022 World Rugby Player of the Year did not feel the need to offer words of wisdom to McCarthy in the build-up to his first Six Nations appearance, having seen him already take playing in the Champions Cup and the Rugby World Cup in his stride.

The 22-year-old lock drew further attention for his mullet hairstyle, cut by Hugo Keenan’s friend, and is taking a relaxed view about whether he will persist with it, saying: “It’s going well so far! I’m just taking it day by day, see how it goes. Nothing too crazy with it.”

Adding to the growing love for McCarthy’s mullet, van der Flier remarked: “It’s a good haircut, yeah. It’s aspirational, that mullet, but he has worked hard on it in fairness to him and he’s very proud of it, as you can see.”