Sunday 17 February 2019

Joe Schmidt must decide whether to stick or twist with Robbie Henshaw full-back experiment

"I think you've got to have versatility across the back-line - you have got to have a number of different options," Schmidt reasoned.
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

A calculated risk, but one that ultimately back-fired - Joe Schmidt's biggest dilemma now is whether to stick or twist with Robbie Henshaw at full-back.

On a sobering evening in which there were very few positives from an Irish point of view, Rob Kearney was undoubtedly the biggest winner to emerge from England's demolition job.

This is by no means the time to press the panic button, yet the reality is that Ireland are already chasing their tails in this Six Nations and cannot afford another slip-up in Scotland this weekend.

By all accounts, Henshaw had trained well for the week in Portugal, but his performance on Saturday had all the hallmarks of a player who was short of experience in the position at international level. One particular moment in the lead-up to Elliot Daly's try summed up that lack of game-time. Trailing 10-7, Ireland had just defended nine bruising phases when Owen Farrell kicked into the back-field.

To Henshaw's credit, he read it well but he failed to find touch with his clearance kick. Had he done, it would have allowed his team-mates a much-needed breather.

As it transpired however, Farrell gathered the kick and counter-attacked. England swept across the pitch with Henry Slade putting another kick in behind just 17 seconds and two phases later.

Again, Henshaw was there but this time he sliced his clearance kick. Then, three phases after the resulting lineout, Daly scored in the corner.

It was perhaps telling that when Schmidt was asked if Henshaw at full-back was a project he intended to stick with from now until the World Cup, the Ireland head coach remained firmly uncommitted.

As well as that, Schmidt openly discussing the World Cup seven months out shows that it is very much at the front and centre of his thoughts.

Playing Henshaw at full-back is something that has been in the pipeline for a while and even though it didn't work first time out, it should not mean that he is not selected there again.

Some will argue that Schmidt must now stick with Henshaw at 15 (his preferred position) and allow him time to develop, yet despite Kearney's difficult night against the Scarlets recently, his absence was felt.

Henshaw was largely unconvincing under the high ball, even on the rare occasions he timed his run well as England repeatedly targeted him.

Eddie Jones denied that was the case, yet it was obvious that the likes of Ben Youngs, Farrell and Slade were under clear instruction to put pressure on Ireland's back-field.

"We'd have played the same way had Lance Armstrong been playing there," Jones quipped.

When you think back to the Grand Slam decider in Twickenham last year, England decided to extend both of the in-goal areas, which Jacob Stockdale ironically profited from.

England wanted to exploit the back-field then and it was the same on Saturday as their game-plan worked to perfection this time around.

Henshaw has established himself as one of the best centres in the game over the last couple of years and he is still young enough to do the same as a full-back, but time is ticking towards the World Cup and now that Ireland are on the back foot, this week's team selection will tell a lot.

Versatility

"I think you've got to have versatility across the back-line - you have got to have a number of different options," Schmidt reasoned.

"So we need to have guys with flexibility. It was the same for the last World Cup. We lost guys like Jared Payne and we ended up playing Keith Earls in the midfield. Guys have to be able to move around.

"In the World Cup, you are a long way away. It's 31 players only so we have to keep trying to build our breadth as well as our depth because we have to commit to that knowing what is coming in this calendar year."

The thinking behind playing Henshaw at full-back is understandable and exciting, but having struggled to control the back-field and by not offering much as an attacking threat, it leaves Schmidt with a major headache for Scotland.

How England exposed Robbie Henshaw in the back-field:

1.jpg
2.jpg
3.jpg
4.jpg

 

Cooney's patience pays off

A Six Nations debut has felt like a long time coming for John Cooney and while the circumstances were disappointing, the Ulster scrum-half deserved his try-scoring moment in front of his family.

Cooney, 28, has filtered through the provinces with the constant hope of breaking into the Ireland set-up and his patience paid off.

“During the tough times (injuries), this was always something I’d envisaged, I knew I’d get to,” he said.

“It was pretty emotional because when you set a big goal and you are nowhere near it, I always believed I could get there. I met a sports psychologist and she told me to train as if I was already an international. I always held myself to those standards in training and it’s paid dividends in the end.”

Cooney’s next aim is to get more game time in Scotland this weekend, which would be particularly sweet because his dad, who will be at Murrayfield, is from Glasgow, where his brothers and father still live.

Aviva Stadium struggles for atmosphere

There is something about certain sections of Irish crowds at the Aviva – slow to take their seats ahead of kick-off and quick to make their way to the exits before full-time once things aren’t going the right way.

For such a huge game on Saturday, the atmosphere was disappointing, and walking up to the ground, you couldn’t help but notice the sheer amount of supporters looking for tickets, but were being priced out of it by the many touts whose inflated prices were sickening.

Too often match days at the Aviva feel like a claustrophobic type of corporate event that you have accidentally stumbled upon.

It shouldn’t take the All Blacks coming to town for the Aviva to generate a proper big-game atmosphere.

Supporting your team through thick and thin should always be the norm.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport