Sunday 18 August 2019

Henshaw goes back to GAA roots for an edge against Saracens

Robbie Henshaw hopes to put his football skills to good use against Sacarens. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE
Robbie Henshaw hopes to put his football skills to good use against Sacarens. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE

Robbie Henshaw thought he was done with scrapping for breaking ball around the middle third, yet on Saturday he'll find himself putting his body on the line in a fight for possession like he did in the old days when he was a Westmeath minor footballer.

Against Munster, Saracens played a spoiling game in the air - chasing Ben Spencer's box-kicks with the intention of slapping the ball back on their own side and winning the battle on the ground.

It proved to be an excellent move. Catching the ball is a far more difficult skill than breaking it backwards, and so, when Mike Haley went to catch the ball in the traditional way he was beaten by David Strettle who went after it at its highest point.

Although there is every chance Sarries could try something different this time around, Leinster are ready for the tactic just in case.

Already, Rob Kearney has spoken about the need to be aware of the threat.

"Their kicking game was superb," he said last month. "I felt a little bit bad for the Munster back three at times, because Sarries were going up just to break ball and if a man is going up to do that, it's very hard to take a clean catch."

Possession

So, the race to be first to the breaking ball will be key and Henshaw is ready to get amongst it, with possession set to be a key factor between two evenly matched teams.

"Breaking ball, absolutely," said Henshaw with a smile as the GAA analogy is drawn.

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"I haven't actually mentioned it but I might mention it during the week, breaking ball, you're 100pc right.

"I think the scraps are going to be huge so I suppose beating them to the ball on the floor and those individual battles are going to be key.

"Getting the edge on your opposite number in the game is going to be huge. If that does happen in the game, whatever team can win those loose balls on the floor will thrive."

Munster have been criticised for not doing enough to stop Saracens' chasers from applying pressure.

All season, chasing players have buffeted by opponents running so-called 'escort' lines and referees have largely turned a blind eye to the illegality.

This has reduced the dangerous aerial contests and the risk of mid-air collisions, but Saracens' spoiling tactic is perhaps a response.

So, Leinster have been working on their own way of dealing with the men in black's excellent kick-chase approach.

"The wingers do a lot of their individual work with a lot of pressure on them going up for the ball, so there will be a lot of that done in our unit block session with the kicking coach," Henshaw said.

"They'd be doing a lot of that individual stuff with someone coming in, pressurising them, trying to get in their face so we've done a bit of prep from what we've seen."

Although Saracens have a host of threats across the park, Owen Farrell is the key man in their set-up.

Henshaw knows the out-half well from their time together on the 2017 Lions tour, while he was on the receiving end of some of the England star's clever kicks during his stint at full-back in Ireland's Six Nations loss in February.

By the sounds of things, a large part of the Blues' focus is on putting pressure on the No 10, who so often enjoys an armchair ride.

"We've certainly had a lot of time to look at him so we'll do our best to go after him," Henshaw said.

"I know he's an incredibly skilled player, he has a variety of plays in his play-book that he can pull out of the bag, so I think it's about what we can do to hopefully put as much pressure on him as we can. But certainly, we'll have to be squeaky clean in terms of our discipline and not give them many shots at goal.

"We've had a lot of time to have a look, not just at him but at Alex Goode, who is another man who is dangerous and has probably been one of the best in their backline.

"When the boys have gone into English camp, he's taken over the reins at 10 and 15, so he's probably a guy who is not mentioned as much but has contributed a lot to this season.

"I played a bit with him (Farrell) in training and I played one game with him but yeah, he's a similar character to Johnny (Sexton) in terms of how he runs the game and he's pretty demanding.

"He's a good leader so he's pivotal in Sarries' attack. He really drives them on in terms of their structure and their game plan.

"I know Stuart's had a good look and he knows they guys from coaching them before, so I suppose that's a good bit of info to have. For us as well, we know how they play from playing them beforehand, but definitely we need to take it up another gear."

All week, the build-up will be dominated by international match-ups and talk of tactics, but for those who enter the white heat of battle at St James' Park, it could simply come down to who is first to the breaking ball.

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