Sport Rugby

Friday 17 November 2017

Door opens for Cave as Henshaw forced out

Darren Cave, here scoring Ireland's third try against Canada last year, is at the make-or-break point in his international career and will be determined to grab his opportunity at centre. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Darren Cave, here scoring Ireland's third try against Canada last year, is at the make-or-break point in his international career and will be determined to grab his opportunity at centre. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It was the kind of news that arrives with a pop, followed by the exhalation of air. Bubble burst. A hand injury suffered by Robbie Henshaw means he will not get his chance to audition for the role of No 13 in the sequel to Brian O'Driscoll's career.

The main player in the summer tour's storyline has been cruelly removed and much of the intrigue behind the plot goes with him.

The Connacht centre had been carrying a hand injury for the latter part of the season and he aggravated it in training over the past fortnight. Thus, the vacant outside centre slot will be not be filled by either of the men expected to play there at the 2015 World Cup.

This was Henshaw's chance to make the shirt his own before New Zealander Jared Payne naturalises in the autumn, just in time for the November games.

The Athlone native has spent the entire season waiting for this moment, shadowing O'Driscoll through the November internationals and the Six Nations, while only getting seven minutes against Australia as reward.

UNLUCKY

In the autumn, he was unlucky that the former captain needed games or else, one imagines, he might have been given a good run against Samoa at least, while in the Six Nations he must also have been close, given O'Driscoll struggled with a calf injury for much of the tournament and was, behind the scenes, considered a major doubt for the last few games.

That experience will stand to him, of course, as will working closely within Joe Schmidt's systems for much of the year, but there is only so much training a young man can do; playing against Argentina would have acted as a neat stepping stone towards seeing off Payne's claims in November.

It would have allowed him to get used to playing outside Johnny Sexton, while also helping him grow accustomed to his role in Les Kiss' defensive system in the Test arena.

While it is a major blow for Henshaw, it's also a spanner in Schmidt's works as the coach parks year one and moves on to the second phase of the Ireland job.

Next year's World Cup looms large at the end of that phase and the New Zealander has not been shy about expressing his frustration around the lack of time he will spend with his players between now and September 19 next year when Ireland kick off their campaign against Canada.

Without Henshaw and Payne for the next fortnight, Schmidt will now have just 12 games in which to gel a new partnership, two of which will be against top class southern hemisphere sides in Australia and South Africa and five will be must-win Six Nations clashes. Apart from these, there will be a clash with Georgia and warm-up games in August next year which never really hit the heights.

The problem for Schmidt is that beneath O'Driscoll there is not a vast array of outside-centre talent lurking. Thus, the next two weeks represent a window for Darren Cave to make his mark.

Yesterday's news that Schmidt would delay naming a replacement for Henshaw until after the Pro12 final indicates the way he is thinking, with Fergus McFadden and Keith Earls likely to cover Cave on tour. London Irish-bound centre Eoin Griffin and Leinster's Brendan Macken are next in line from the Emerging Ireland squad, while Gordon D'Arcy and Tommy Bowe are being given the summer off.

Schmidt will be praying McFadden, who has had his fair share of injuries this season, can come through unscathed and could then add an additional back-three player to the ranks, with Andrew Conway and Craig Gilroy having been involved in Ireland training last weekend when no specialist No 13 was involved.

For Cave, this is the chance to back up his December comments when he raised his head above the parapet and voiced concerns that his "face doesn't fit" in Ireland camp.

June is the Ulster centre's time to shine, always has been. This will be the 27-year-old's fourth tour since 2009 when he made his debut against the United States and his four caps since then have all come in the summer.

He has had a fine season, coming in behind Conor Murray on the 'try assist' chart in Europe and looking a threat throughout the season.

Cave spent the spring shadowing O'Driscoll, too, but at this stage of his career, he is in make-or-break territory and he knows it. He'll want to keep Earls and McFadden as far away from that No 13 shirt as possible.

Henshaw will come back into the fold next season, by which time Payne will, under IRB rules, have become 'Irish' after his three years in Belfast.

WAITING

For a young man, he has played a waiting game, but perhaps he should heed the words of his current coach, Pat Lam, who compared his mental toughness to that of Jonny Wilkinson earlier this month.

"All of the people we admire in the world, it's their ability to overcome adversity that we respect, it's where you've come from," the former Samoan international said.

"With Robbie, yeah, he's not in the strongest realm (at Connacht), with the strongest players around him at the moment, but those are the things which will keep him in good stead.

"Sometimes when it's too easy, when it's sheltered, I've seen players that, once it gets too hard, they struggle.

"When you're facing adversity all the time, there's only two ways you can go. You can go down or you can grow from it. Facing a challenge is what brings about greatness."

Following O'Driscoll was never going to be easy, either is replacing him. The cards have been dealt and it is up to the contenders to react.

Irish Independent

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