Van der Flier in select company as Ireland target quarters

Of those men to have played the All Blacks more than twice, just a dozen can claim to have won at least two thirds of their meetings since the turn of the century.

Of those men to have played the All Blacks more than twice, just a dozen can claim to have won at least two thirds of their meetings since the turn of the century.

It is a very select group made up of nine Australians from the early 2000s, England World Cup winner Neil Back and Springbok openside Heinrich Brussow.

The final member of that remarkable dozen? A certain Josh van der Flier.

The Ireland back-rower came off the bench after 25 minutes in the landmark win in Chicago, and then played the full 80 minutes two years later for the memorable first win in Dublin.

He does not quite have the perfect record against the All Blacks, even Van der Flier could not turn the tide when coming on with Ireland trailing 14-3 in the second meeting in 2016.

But there is no question that he has excelled against the best team in the world. That could be valuable as New Zealand lie in wait as possible quarter-final opponents for Ireland.

First of course, Joe Schmidt’s team must get past Samoa, and after being rested for the win over Russia, Van der Flier is back and raring to go.

He explained: “I was kind of back and forth in that it was quite nice to have a break in what is a compact competition so you have to appreciate the break, but when it got to the captain’s run I was thinking, oh, I want to play now’ and then watching the game is always hard.

“You want to be involved and impact it in some ways so it was tough looking on, although I feel very fresh having had that bit of a break.”

Ireland go into their game against Samoa knowing that a bonus-point victory will clinch a spot in the last eight, although their final position in Pool A will come down to what happens between Scotland and Japan, provided that match survives the weather.

Whatever happens though, Ireland would face a daunting opponent in the last eight, with South Africa the alternative if they were to sneak into top spot.

The back row, for so long a major strength of Irish rugby, has been hit in Japan. Dan Leavy and Sean O’Brien were ruled out before the squad was even selected, while Jack Conan has had to return home for foot surgery.

It is a testament to their strength in depth that there is still so much competition for places, with Tadhg Beirne given a shot at blindside flanker this week.

The Munster forward is more often used at lock, but for Van der Flier, Beirne’s ability over the ball at the breakdown makes him a prime candidate to impress on the flank.

He said: “He’s a great player. He’s probably been the best at the breakdown in Europe the last two years and he has been incredibly impressive.

“I’m sure we’ll see a bit of that on Saturday but he has been brilliant, a really good ball carrier as well. He has been outstanding for Munster all year as well so it is exciting to be playing alongside him.

“It’s obviously been a big disappointment losing Jack. That was tough but there’s has been a good balance to the back row.

“A lot of the lads cover different positions and we have all played together a few times, which is good. We have a lot of experience together and I think it’s been good. The breakdown has been good.

“We haven’t had too many turnovers against us which is what you would be typically looking at in the back row. It’s been pretty good.”

Ireland have been very good at protecting their own ball, but as with many teams in Japan, they have found it a little tougher to force turnovers of their own.

Van der Flier is only too aware of that, and knows Ireland and he, in particular, will have to improve in that area.

But while some have pinned the lack of turnovers on the way the ruck is being officiated, Van der Flier believes it is simply a case of adapting to each referee.

He added: “I think the breakdown has been good, looking at the other games as well, it’s the same as always.

“For example, if I’m on a poach, some refs would be two-three seconds, some are four-five seconds, some are quicker.

“I suppose with some refs you know you have to be able to stay on the ball for five or six seconds or you’re not getting it, that kind of thing.

“I’ve got no issues, anyway. I haven’t got too many turnovers but hopefully… I put that down to myself, more than anyone else!”

If Van der Flier can get the ball rolling with a few turnovers in Fukuoka on Saturday, then the All Blacks may just find themselves up against their bogeyman once again.