Josh van der Flier proving why Lions snub was so baffling in every single outing
It did not make sense at the time. It makes even less sense now.
Next Wednesday, Rugby Players Ireland will host their first in-person awards ceremony since 2019, and Josh van der Flier may pick himself up an accolade or two.
Given Leinster's excellent season, so far, a Six Nations Triple Crown and a rousing November win over the All Blacks, there will be plenty of lads in the running for Players' Player of the Year. Van der Flier should have it in the bag, though.
Always consistent, and the tempo setter of Leinster's press defence, van der Flier has brought his game on to new level(s) in the past two seasons. His ball-carrying and him being a running threat has no improved so much, that it is almost trite in remarking how much it has improved. It is just a given, now.
At the start of the 2020/21 season, we spoke to van der Flier about his training routines, individually and with the team, and about how he was trying to wring the best out of himself.
"I'd do a bit of tackle work; tackle technique," he told us. "I'd rarely do full-on tackles other than if it's done in [full] training or during a game.
"I'd do a lot of pad work, working on my technique. The idea is try and get the right technique then, on game day, I don't even need to think about it and hopefully I'll get that right technique. So it's just drilling a few of those things.
"I'd always try to do a bit of catch and pass. A good bit of passing. I'd get someone to kick the ball at me, and catch. I'd get them from about 10 yards away, firing a ball straight at me and I'll try and catch them. It's more difficult than any pass you'd get in a game, so once you're in normal training, then it makes it a bit easier.
"I do a few other bits and pieces. Specific to number 7, I do a lot of breakdown work. So, working on hitting the first ruck with Hugh Hogan, who's the [contact] skills coach in Leinster. Bit of cleaning out - clean-outs of rucks - hitting pads or working on poaching technique... Or maybe there's something I feel I have to add to my game - a bit of foot-work - and I'll add those bits in. But I have those set things that I do every week and I'd tip away every week and hopefully improve."
The hard slog on the training pitches at Leinster's UCD base, and in the gym and analysis sessions, has clearly paid off. Still, van der Flier had to deal with the disappointment of narrowly missing out on a Lions Tour for the second time in his career.
Trying on the Lions jersey, twice
Back in 2017, Josh van der Flier was one of a host of players in Six Nations squads - Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales - that got measured and fitted for British & Irish Lions jerseys, gear and suits.
It is a regular occurrence, now. Players will tell themselves not to get carried away when the kits arrive at the team hotel and the headshots are taken - so thew Lions communications folks can use them for the official squad announcement, later in the year.
Still, it would be hard not to get excited when you are given a sneak peek of the new kit and asked to don that famous red jersey. At the time, the Leinster flanker reflected:
"No-one was really thinking about it [in February] and it was really far away but you were there trying on Lions jerseys, which is just a strange experience altogether. It still feels far away but it was still a strange experience... lads from all the [home nation] countries have tried it on. So it wasn't like 'Oh I must be really close'. Everyone knew it was a just in case thing."
As it turned out, van der Flier was close. Warren Gatland mentioned him as one of the young players that had been pushing hard, and making the selection process difficult, ahead of a Test Series in New Zealand that ended up being a draw.
Four years on, and we had the likes of Neil Back, Fergus McFadden and Sam Warburton making a case for Josh van der Flier to make Gatland's squad to tour South Africa. Gatland opted for Hamish Watson and Justin Tipuric as his opensides, with Tom Curry the versatile back-row option. When Tipuric got injured, Josh Navidi pipped van der Flier and flew South.
Leaving van der Flier at home, where he would star for Ireland in blow-out summer Test wins, made little sense at the time. Maybe, we asked ourselves, if we were looking at the selection through green-tinted glasses. It did not feel that way, though.
Taming the Tigers
Many Leinster and Irish supporters were more concerned with James Ryan and Johnny Sexton missing out. Looking back now, as van der Flier has enjoyed another immense season, there were three big calls that went against those fans. It makes even less sense now that van der Flier was not out there, pushing for the Test Series against the Springboks.
On two occasions, he has been fitted and kitted for the Lions but has had to watch on as they travel long-distance to take on the best.
Any disappointment or anger that may have stemmed from missing those call-ups has clearly been directed in a positive way. Against Leicester Tigers, on Saturday, he scored his 10th try of the season, for club and country, and was a savage in attack and defence.
Awards season is coming, from a personal perspective, but Josh van der Flier is already looking past that to more cup glory with Leinster and one hell of a tour to New Zealand.