Tuesday 17 September 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'Robbie Henshaw could blow the battle for the Irish 15 shirt wide open this weekend'

Jordan Larmour, Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney
Jordan Larmour, Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Typical for this time of year is the column listing the new faces to feature in the upcoming Six Nations.

We read one yesterday that featured wing Darcy Graham of Scotland, France's explosive young tight head Demba Bamba along with centre Romain Ntamack, two of the Welsh squad – scrumhalf Tomos Williams and open side Thomas Young – and England flanker Tom Curry. Nothing from either Italy or Ireland.

You could argue that Italy didn't have anyone worthy of standing on the six-spot podium. And Ireland? Currently it's a newcomer-free zone. Instead the only curveball in Joe Schmidt's squad was the one forecast yesterday with Robbie Henshaw at full back. Unless you include John Cooney, who will hope to squeeze in on Saturday for what would be his first Championship minutes and his fifth cap.

Cooney's inclusion however was clearly visible from the moment Kieran Marmion's ankle surgery was followed by Luke McGrath being carted off with a torn MCL in the Champions Cup game a fortnight ago against Toulouse.

Other than that, Dave Kilcoyne over Jack McGrath was not as tight a call as you might think, while Quinn Roux getting onto the bench is a lesson to those left out when the original 38 man squads are announced. He wasn't in the five men named then to cover second row. Exit Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson with injury and in comes Roux. As a man who Schmidt likes to laud for his scrummaging at tight head lock, perhaps that's why he now gets in ahead of Ultan Dillane who was in the 38.

Henshaw will dominate the build-up though. Back when Eric Elwood was in his early coaching days at Connacht he was raving about Henshaw who was then a very young Academy full back who could move easily to centre. England, and Owen Farrell in particular, will be hoping he doesn't make the reverse journey as handily given we have stopped thinking of him with two digits on his back.

If he was uncomfortably truthful on the issue Rob Kearney would feel the same way. Just when he had seen off, for the moment, the challenge of Jordan Larmour, who appears from the depths only Henshaw. The difference between Kearney and Larmour is inescapable, and what the senior man can't do off either foot the young pretender does without thinking.

On the other hand Kearney is outstanding in the air. He was Schmidt's first choice when the coach took over from Declan Kidney and he has been the go-to choice for big games ever since.

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In those circumstances Kearney's woes for Leinster against Scarlets in the RDS last week didn't seem critical. Frequently – even when fully fit - he has been sat down by attackers who are quick on their feet, and still Schmidt has valued what he does well far higher than what he does badly.

Henshaw could change that picture however. Schmidt was impressed by how Chris Farrell went on the training ground in Portugal, and with Will Addison another option there the midfield is looking robust. A big game for Henshaw and we'll be saying the same thing about full back.

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