Wednesday 20 February 2019

Henshaw conundrum, pack balance and case for continuity - The decisions that will shape Joe Schmidt’s road to redemption

Robbie Henshaw will be at the centre of selection debates this week. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Robbie Henshaw will be at the centre of selection debates this week. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Redemption comes in the form of four successive wins and as good a Six Nations finish as Ireland can muster. The road there begins in Edinburgh.

After Saturday's heavy defeat to England, Joe Schmidt has a number of big calls to make.

Josh van der Flier of Ireland. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Josh van der Flier of Ireland. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Injury will play a part as he considers what changes are required for the round two clash with Scotland, a dress-rehearsal for the opening game of this year's World Cup campaign.

At the Six Nations launch, Schmidt was asked about the room for experimentation with a view to Japan during the upcoming tournament and his answer was instructive.

"Sometimes with selection there are a few surprises that are part of maybe a bigger picture, a long-term plan but you get pretty short-term focused," he said.

"You play England, you don't think too much about a World Cup because I think the danger is you can damage a World Cup - your confidence, your expectation, your momentum, just because you look too far ahead and don't give due respect to what is one of the biggest teams in world rugby."

It turned out to be prescient from the head coach who watched on frustrated as his team failed to fire as their Grand Slam defence went up in flames.

It was just the second defeat in 20 internationals, but the nature of the loss will cause Schmidt sleepless nights.

His next moves will be fascinating as he and his team return to a venue where they lost their opening match in 2017.

The Henshaw conundrum

Perhaps the biggest call for Schmidt this week is whether to abandon the Robbie Henshaw experiment and bring Rob Kearney back in right away.

The coach spoke effusively about the Athlone native's capacity to play well at full-back after naming him in the No 15 jersey for the England game, but on the evidence of the 80 minutes he has some way to go to matching Kearney in the back-field.

England's kicking game put Ireland's back three under all sorts of pressure and Henshaw was not alone in struggling, but as the new man in he gets much of the focus.

Kearney didn't get any game-time under his belt last weekend, but he is in the camp and available for selection. However, having made the bold call to give Henshaw the experience, isn't it the right thing to stick with him?

Perhaps Schmidt's hand will be forced by injury.

Garry Ringrose has a hamstring injury and Keith Earls is struggling with a hip issue, while Andrew Conway is out with a calf problem.

If Ringrose and Earls are out, it would make sense for Henshaw to revert to the midfield with Kearney lending experience to Jordan Larmour and Jacob Stockdale on the wing.

Chris Farrell is another option if Schmidt opts to keep Henshaw out the back.

Having made the big decision in the first place, it would seem the sensible call to see it through and stick with him.

The pack balance

It is not often you see the head coach talk about his team being 'man-handled' and 'bullied' by an opposition and he'll want a response from his pack this weekend.

CJ Stander is definitely out after suffering a suspected fractured cheekbone, while Devin Toner is a major doubt with an ankle problem. Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson are also out, meaning Connacht pair Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane are the lock options.

Roux came off the bench last weekend which would suggest he's ahead in the pecking order, but Dillane offers more top-of-the-ground ability against a mobile Scottish pack.

In the back-row, Schmidt must consider what game he wants to play as he assesses his options.

Does he go for Seán O'Brien who is probably the most like-for-like replacement for Stander whose work-rate will be missed or does he bring in the out-and-out No 8 in Jack Conan? Jordi Murphy is another option and his combination with Josh van der Flier would make for a highly mobile unit.

O'Brien could also be accommodated on the openside and his defensive communication and leadership would be a welcome addition after the low energy approach last Saturday.

It all comes down to the approach he wants to take. Van der Flier and O'Brien is a mix and match, O'Brien and Conan is a physical pairing with off-loading and game-breaking ability and Van der Flier and Murphy offer an athletic, high paced game.

Continuity elsewhere

Given the potential for injury enforced change in four key departments, Schmidt will lean on the cohesion of his front-row and half-backs to keep the show on the road.

After 50 caps together, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will be determined to show that last weekend's poor showing was a blip and bounce back right away.

The scrum-half is still playing his way back into form but this Saturday will be his 10th game back.

Ireland need him to step things up in a big way.

Any potential for giving Joey Carbery a game is gone as Ireland look to get back to winning ways against a dangerous opponent.

As Schmidt alluded to before the tournament, another loss could have major consequences for Ireland's World Cup confidence and so he needs his leaders to step up and deliver a performance that is closer to the team's potential.

That will start the healing after a damaging night.

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