Wednesday 18 September 2019

Comment: Tadhg Beirne can profit from Henderson blow as Schmidt faces anxious month ahead of Oz tour

Iain Henderson is free to face Italy
Iain Henderson is free to face Italy

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

At the outset, this looked like being a quiet week on the rugby scene but in truth there is no such thing.

Amidst the sackings, hirings, signings and build-up to Munster v Edinburgh, the news that Iain Henderson's season could be over has slipped largely below the radar, but it has big implications for Joe Schmidt ahead of the summer tour of Australia.

This time of year is the provinces' time to shine and, while the Grand Slam glow remains as a backdrop to the end-of-season run-in, the national team have stepped into the shadows.

Behind the scenes, Schmidt is watching on and planning for a tour that he will see as critical to his team's development.

Having left a series behind them in South Africa two years ago, he will be determined for his team to become the first Ireland team to deliver in the southern hemisphere since 1979.

With a weekend off between the Guinness PRO14 final on May 26 and the first Test in Brisbane on June 9, the coach may choose to delay naming his squad to see who comes through the end of the season unscathed having had four key players drop out in the aftermath of the last game of the season two years ago.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile

Connacht's season is over, Ulster have one big game to go, Munster and Leinster both hope to have three.

Some will view next month's tour as a chance to rest big players at the end of a long season and develop the squad, but the coach is now close to settling on the panel from which the 2019 World Cup squad will be drawn and will want to build on the success of spring.

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The draw-bridge won't be pulled up, but having won a Grand Slam with players as young as 20 in the match-day 23, he can't be accused of conservatism.

After the tour there will be 13 games, four of which are meaningless warm-ups, before the tournament in Japan which means the tour is of major strategic importance.

Losing Henderson is a blow, but it should open the door for Munster-bound lock Tadhg Beirne to impress.

Up until now the fact that the Kildare man is based in Wales and playing a large number of games outside the protection of the Irish system had precluded his involvement, but given the limited windows between now and the World Cup Schmidt will be keen to get a closer look at the former Leinster academy player.

Beirne, who has spent time in Ireland's training camp, has had another excellent season and is taking a pay-cut to move to Munster and chase an Ireland cap.

Although Leinster largely managed to neutralise him at the Aviva Stadium in last month's semi-final, the addition of such a dynamic player who tops the PRO14 turnover stats despite playing in the second-row is a big plus against Michael Cheika's men.

During the Six Nations, the head coach rotated between his three front-line second-rows but settled on Henderson and James Ryan for the Grand Slam game in London.

Devin Toner is a very able replacement, but beneath the big Leinster lock the coach has an unclear hierarchy.

Connacht pair Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane have been in and out of squads, while Ulster's Kieran Treadwell appears to have fallen away after being capped last June and November, leaving an opening for Beirne to swoop in.

A six-week gap between Connacht's last game and the first Test will leave their players either fresh or undercooked depending on your standpoint, and will likely work against the pair unless they can get some game-time under their belts.

Beirne's ability to offer additional blindside cover is an added bonus when including him in a squad, while his workload will depend on whether the Scarlets can negotiate their way back to the PRO14 final by beating Cheetahs and Glasgow Warriors in the weeks to come.

Second-row is an area the coach knows he needs to strengthen, although the fact that Munster's Jean Kleyn qualifies in the weeks before the World Cup helps matters.

Certainly, Schmidt had no hesitation in bringing Nathan White in to bolster his tighthead ranks three years ago and the South African has been excellent for the province since arriving.

For now, he'll look to strengthen what he has against a Wallaby side who are strong in the second-row department.

A month out from departure, Schmidt is in a strong position but he'll be watching the final games of the campaign through his fingers.

Right now, of the 23 who played against England in Twickenham, Henderson is the first to fall.

Indeed, Robbie Henshaw's remarkably quick recovery from his dislocated shoulder means Schmidt may be forced to choose a pair from Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki for the first time since the Aucklander qualified to play for Ireland.

The chance to build on the success of spring is close for the coach, but the physical toll of the next month will be huge and it is unlikely that everyone will get through unscathed.

Henderson is the first and more are likely to follow before the plane sets off for the Gold Coast.

But, as we have seen this season, that opens doors for others to make the grade and Beirne should be the first to take advantage by making an impact at the next level.

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