Wednesday 13 December 2017

Neil Francis: Robbie Henshaw should have scored - The great players get it done

Right man in right corner but luck slips from Ireland's grasp

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The word 'butcher' kept popping up in many of the match reports that I read after events in Twickenham last Saturday.

It is true that there were a number of unconverted opportunities from both sides during the 80 - it was not, though, a cabaret of bumblers, fumblers and stumblers.

Robbie Henshaw should have scored a try in the 65th minute of the game, a try that would have removed the gift-wrap packaging of a win on a professional and competent performance from the hosts and with 15 minutes left would have persuaded both teams to throw the dice again.

A four- or six-point margin with plenty of time left and England's major influencer Billy Vunipola barking for oxygen and no longer a factor would have put an entirely different complexion on this game.

Ireland were in the mood and looked sharper as the game drew to a conclusion. England's halves, as they were throughout the game, were well short of where they needed to be in terms of giving direction and encouragement to their fellow players.

The Henshaw opportunity was the money shot for 80 minutes of toil and it wasn't converted. England's two-try blitz either side of the 60-minute mark had a degree of finality about it. England's body language changed - the match was in the bag once Owen Farrell converted Michael Flatley's try. How would England have reacted if suddenly the match was up for grabs again?

Robbie Henshaw just fails to touch down against England at Twickenham last weekend Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Robbie Henshaw just fails to touch down against England at Twickenham last weekend Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

If you put every player who is playing in this year's RBS Six Nations Championship in the same situation as Henshaw - fewer than five per cent would score from the same situation.

If there was anyone that you reckoned could have sealed the deal it would have been Henshaw. If the Irish team itself had an open ballot - they collectively probably would have chosen to put the ball in Henshaw's hands - quick, intelligent and powerful.

We cast our mind back to the same match on March 1 last year in the Aviva. Ireland on the attack in the second half and phase play brought them to the right-hand side of the pitch about 20 metres out. Conor Murray indicates that a mini box-kick is on for Henshaw to chase. Nine times out of 10 you are just speculatively kicking the ball away - it's a turnover.


This was an exceptional moment, though, and Henshaw's concentration and conviction made sure that he picked the ball out of Alex Goode's clutches and that was the game. How Henshaw got to it without spilling the ball or going into touch was only something which the sporting gods can ordain. He also got the ball down unsighted in the right spot before he got smashed into touch in goal.

A seminal moment and a great try. The boy could finish. We will trust him with further and greater opportunity in the future. He is not a prolific try-scorer but when he gets close - he has a nose for the line.

Shane Horgan's all-important try in 2006 Photo: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE
Shane Horgan's all-important try in 2006 Photo: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

Hands up if you were able to tell me that Shane Horgan's dramatic match-winning try in Twickenham is now 10 years old. In 2006, Horgan's awareness and prescience to keep his body in play, ward off his tackler and place the ball down over the try-line was as cultured as the yoghurt he is now promoting.

I read recently that the NFL look for many things in aspiring college quarter-backs when they look to hire them - hand size more than anything else is what they seek. If you have shovels for hands the thinking is that you won't fumble and you get far better trajectory on your pass.

Horgan has huge paws - it explains why he was able to hold onto the ball when he was going over the line with everything going on around him - if you are secure in the knowledge that you can keep the ball safe in the last movement when you have to reach and place - often one-handed - well then you have a big advantage. Henshaw has a big heart - how big are his hands?

The lead-up to Henshaw's opportunity was very interesting. Readers of my column at this stage are probably aware that I don't rate Nathan White too highly - yet he had an effective cameo for Sexton's wrap-around. As Sexton went right with the ball - all he saw was England's front five in front of him like donkeys in a meadow.

He fixed his pass to White who not only didn't drop it but gave a pretty nifty return as Sexton went around the corner. White wasn't finished as he charged into Mako Vunipola and brilliantly cleared out (legally) a little corridor for Sexton to scoot through. Sexton still has gas and he torched his way through the cover.

Rob Kearney and Henshaw followed the break but only Henshaw got to the outside. The Lord of the Dance came forward and sized Sexton up. Ireland's out-half fixed England's full-back and the transfer to Henshaw was perfect. Not many people saw it but Brown absolutely emptied Sexton in the tackle. It's a man's game and Sexton knew he was going to get hit hard - 'just make sure it's worth my effort and pain Roberto!'

This was the moment of the match. No time now for self-doubt or indecision - 82,000 people roaring and tens of millions watching - trust in self. The next four seconds are a blur - it is purely about instinct and intuition.

Jack Nowell has the angle on Henshaw - the key to the contact is whether Henshaw can dictate the point of contact on his terms. As Henshaw goes down the line, he has the ball in the wrong hand - his inside hand. Henshaw's peripheral vision tells him that he will need to fend Nowell with his inside arm.

The transfer to the correct arm comes and it is done in a millisecond but the transfer comes a second late because Henshaw's fend just wasn't direct or decisive enough.

Ireland's centre also kept on his line and even moved slightly closer to the touchline in the flight for the try-line. When you know contact is coming you step back in to your opponent and make contact early and hit the tackler hard so that it lessens his impact as he tries to push you into touch.

Henshaw rode the tackle reasonably well but he did not plant his right leg before his dive and it gave way as he was going for the line. Nowell is a nuggety powerful player and the quality of the tackle was excellent. He went low and latched on tight to Henshaw's left leg.

His body height was low to avoid the full effects of the fend and his concentration was excellent. Henshaw was in touch a millisecond before he spilled the ball.


The difference between staying in play and going a few inches over the touchline are infinitesimal. Natural instinct and self-awareness are just two qualities of about a dozen that you need to get the job done. A crucial incident in the match. An authentic sporting moment!

Some players are prisoners to fate and the scale of the task is sometimes too great an ask but after his heroics in the Aviva last year we expected Henshaw to prevail.

Who would have scored it? Sonny Bill, Ma'a Nonu, Jonah, Campo, Sella, Drico and Shane Horgan. The top one per cent. Henshaw probably could do it in two years' time or four years' time. The chance was by no means butchered but the unarmed truth is that the great ones get it done at the first and possibly only time of asking.

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