Sunday 18 August 2019

Joe Schmidt has no problem invoking his new back-stop

Ireland coach offers glowing assessment of Ireland's new full-back Henshaw

Mr Versatility: Robbie Henshaw has been named at full-back by Joe Schmidt. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Mr Versatility: Robbie Henshaw has been named at full-back by Joe Schmidt. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor at the Aviva Stadium

There could come a time when we look back at yesterday's team announcement press conference at the Aviva Stadium as the day the guard changed.

For so long, Rob Kearney has been the last line of Ireland's defence in the No 15 jersey, but yesterday Joe Schmidt invoked a new back-stop by selecting Robbie Henshaw at full-back.

He insisted that it would be premature to write Kearney's Ireland career off just yet, but he was effusive in his praise of the man who replaces him. If the idea was to give the Louth man a jolt, it will surely do the trick.

Thirty-four of Robbie Henshaw's 36 senior caps have come in the centre, but by the sounds of things Schmidt has been waiting for an opportunity to trial the Athlone native in his favourite position.

If things go well and Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose remain fit, it will be very difficult for Kearney to force his way back in.

Henshaw was a full-back at under-age level and wore the No 15 shirt on his Ireland debut in Houston, Texas when still a teenager.

With Schmidt watching on from the stands, he endured a difficult afternoon on a hot day as Ireland narrowly beat the United States.

He played in the centre and full-back against Australia that November, but when he came into the team on a regular basis it was as a No 12 alongside Jared Payne. He has switched to the outside centre channel, but this is a new departure.

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At club level, he juggled both for Connacht but Leinster have used him almost exclusively as a midfielder since he joined in 2016.

Despite that, Schmidt has long considered seeing how Henshaw gets on in the back-field. Neither man brings much form into the tournament, but Kearney's "rusty" performance against Scarlets tipped the balance.

"It is really the fact that Rob Kearney wasn't ready. He has been a rock for us in the back-field," Schmidt said.

"It's also been something on our radar for a long time.

"Our initial thoughts were to potentially play Robbie at full-back in Australia. We had Bundee and Garry Ringrose and Robbie altogether, but then for each of the Tests only two of them were available so when you got into the position where we could do what we thought would be a good change up for us. You're always trying to grow the squad.

"I remember when I spoke to (former Connacht coach) Pat (Lam) and said, 'If you get the chance, it'd be great to see Robbie at No 12 in this European Challenge Cup game'. "He said, 'Yeah, if it works out that way we'll do that'.

"So, Robbie came into the team having had very little time playing No 12... but he has still played more at No 15 in his rugby career than he has at 12. The innate understanding of what is required from 15 is still there.

"Certainly Robbie is rock-solid when it comes to the defensive side of the game."

While he will encounter challenges against such a strong opposition, Schmidt says Henshaw won't be found wanting when it comes to attitude.

"I tell you what, if I said to Robbie, 'Look Robbie, I'm thinking about putting you at No 8', he'd look a bit bemused but he'd say, 'Yeah, yeah, I just need to get the calls. I'll see Feeky (scrum coach Greg Feek) and make sure I'm nailed on at scrum time'," he enthused.

"He is a solutions man. He's not a 'that's a problem for me' guy. He's a guy who goes out and says 'righto, that's a challenge, I'm going to find solutions. I am going to grow the solutions so that I can be as complete in that position as I can be'.

"It's hard to say he's going to have all the solutions on Saturday because I think everything is a progression and nothing is linear.

"Progressions have peaks and troughs, there's going to be some challenges for him during the game and during the tournament if he stays there - or if Rob Kearney comes in there or if Jordan Larmour or Will Addison play in that position.

"I do think that we're looking to broaden people all the time, whether that's on or off the pitch, and he (Henshaw) broadens himself.

"He makes sure that he's really well prepared. That's the vote of confidence that we'd have in Robbie."

As well as attitude, Schmidt reckons the 25-year-old has the nous to nail his role in a position he knows well, but hasn't practised in the white-heat of international rugby for some time.

"I think a game intelligence," he said when asked what Henshaw brings to the position.

"Because if you don't have a game intelligence there is always a risk at 15, because it is where the biggest spaces are.

"So you have to got to be able to anticipate play really well and connect in that pendulum with the back three. It's not one 15 that we have, it is kind of three guys operating as a 15. They tend to mix and match depending who last chased the ball, who last kicked the ball and what the demands are at the time.


"He is exceptional in the air - akin to Rob Kearney. England will remember well four years ago, the defining moment in that win we had here when he went up against Alex Goode in the one-to-one in the end-goal and it was quite an exceptional catch and to get the ball down was exceptional.

"He is incredibly committed, defensively. He will absolutely deliver at tackle time and he is a smart attacking player.

"He'll get himself into the backline and he'll offer himself as a ball-carrier or as a link player. So, I think he has got the full spectrum of skills required to play the position."

Asked if it would be premature to begin penning Kearney's rugby obituary, Schmidt was emphatic.

"Definitely. There isn't one big game where Rob has not had an impact in big moments," he said, listing several key moments from Kearney's glittering career.

"So there have been a number of those really pivotal moments where he has had involvement that have been crucial for us."

Irish Independent

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