Tony Ward: 'Latest Henshaw injury sparks scramble to cover key inside man'
Naturally the coaching pipers will play the appropriate tune. So just as Johann van Graan papers over the cracks caused through Chris Farrell’s latest injury at Munster so too must Leo Cullen, Stuart Lancaster and the rest paint the rosiest picture given the loss of Robbie Henshaw yet again to Leinster.
Obviously I hope I am wrong in relation to Henshaw, who is still a much under-valued player within the ranks of Irish rugby, but comparisons with Sean O’Brien and his ongoing tale of injury woe are beginning to have a little substance.
Of course given the nature of the game and its increasing physicality, injury is an occupational hazard.
Henshaw is not a flash player, indeed whatever the polar opposite to that term is then the Westmeath man is it. But the increasing prevalence of his injuries must be causing grave concern to Cullen.
I use the expression ‘grave’ because in almost every other position there is one top-ranked alternative at least but at inside centre Leinster are short on cover of an equivalent standard.
The jury is still out on Joe Tomane and in all honesty when compared with Isa Nacewa or James Lowe upon their arrival, the early impressions are less than convincing.
I feel sorry for Noel Reid because he is much too small to play the role required alongside Garry Ringrose.
Reid is a very good playmaker and by extension first receiver, whether it is alongside Johnny Sexton or Ross Byrne wearing 10 as orchestrator in chief.
Throughout his time at St Michael’s Reid flittered in big matches between out-half and wing.
He is a natural footballer, perceptive and extremely light on his feet when on the ball but unfortunately the modern game demands much more of its inside centre than that. It is the law of the jungle and in pure bulk he is short.
The No 12 and No 15 shirts represent the areas in which I have the most concern for the small man. The two most exciting full-backs on the fringe of world rugby are Damian McKenzie and Jordan Larmour.
Will that God-given talent be rewarded in terms of caps won? I sincerely hope so, only time will tell, but I do have my doubts.
It is a bruising game, particularly down that 10/12 channel and in that last line of defence where Rob Kearney, as a defuser of bombs, is still in a league of his own.
Leinster have had many great centres through the years and as a combination Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy were a level apart.
With their individual and combined retirements (and bear in mind D’Arcy was a converted full-back/wing thanks to Gary Ella in his time at Leinster) we feared the worst for province and country going forward.
Now we have Ringrose and Henshaw in situ, a pairing with possibly equivalent potential.
Possible alternatives during Henshaw’s latest enforced absence include Reid (and I would love to see him succeed before he departs to pastures new), Rory O’Loughlin (underage centre but rich potential still to be fulfilled who starts this evening), Tomane, and Tom Daly and Jimmy O’Brien (currently making their way as the ‘A’ team combination).
Larmour was a lethal outside centre in his time at St Andrew’s and with a similar physique to D’Arcy he could be a possible candidate to move one further position in.
It wouldn’t be my preferred choice but for Felipe Contepomi, given the current crisis, all options are on the table at a time when needs simply must.
There is the nuclear option too, as used by the Lions in 2017, whereby Sexton and Owen Farrell lined out at 10 and 12 respectively.
To a large extent it worked but Farrell is a different animal, being equally comfortable in that centre slot when called to perform there alongside George Ford for England. Significantly, that experiment has been abandoned of late.
In a Leinster context Sexton is much more physically driven than Byrne, but he must remain nailed on at 10.
Byrne is firmly established as the
current shadow 10, leaving Ciaran
Frawley, who is looking ever so promising as a future Leinster pivot (and that’s
without even mentioning the younger of the Byrne brothers Harry now making his way impressively at Lansdowne), as a distinct short-term possibility at No 12.
In almost every position the reigning European champions are top-heavy with the hub of the team at 8 (Jack Conan, Max Deegan and Caelan Doris), 9 (Luke McGrath, Jamison Gibson-Park, Munster bound Nick McCarthy, Patrick Patterson and Hugh O’Sullivan) and at 10 (as outlined) typical of the overcrowding.
Full-back will be in need of address but for now looks covered, leaving that
Henshaw void a massive hole to be filled short and long term.
The Christmas period and the inter-provincial series will present Leinster management with an opportunity to experiment in a competitive environment.
I hate the now-established principle of a door-basher and lock-picker in midfield and that for me was what made the
O’Driscoll/D’Arcy combination different.
For all of his physicality Henshaw has that creative D’Arcy spark and that is why he is proving so difficult to replace.
But it is what it is and Leinster, while spoilt for choice in general, have to prove again today and in the weeks to come that they have what it takes to adapt in a crisis.
It is what takes great teams in sporting codes on from ‘mere’ winning to legendary status.
Therein lies the challenge above everything else over this particularly competitive festive period.