Tuesday 23 July 2019

Neil Francis: Robbie Henshaw's try is up there with Simon Geoghegan and Shane Horgan as one of our greatest finishes

Robbie Henshaw's try a sublime piece of skill, athleticism and instinct

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

It was about 10.0pm. The carriage was empty as Simon Geoghegan and journalist David Walsh sat down. The train lurched into life as the door closed over.

They had just about made it from Bath RFC training ground to the station. It would be close to midnight before they got to Paddington.

The reason for their shared journey was that Walsh wanted to do a piece on the work/life balance that Geoghegan had engaged in as a solicitor for Rosling-King and his alter ego as a flying wing for Bath RFC. The choke-damp drudgery of the commute, the training and the commute back to London three times a week should have told Walsh that there would be no gems in his copy that week. The journalist himself will tell you that he doesn't produce stock pieces, but that was all he had - that was until the British Rail second-class cabin rolled into Swindon.

Geoghegan had just been served a dowdy and unappetising steak and kidney pie as the train came to a halt. Thirty seconds later, 500 drunken Millwall supporters descended upon the train. They had lost in the quarter-final of the League Cup and a blue tide of boorishness and yobbery infused its way into the carriage.

Ruminating on the change of circumstance, Geoghegan was about to take a second bite out of his pie when a large tattooed arm reached out and grabbed it off his plate. Biffa Bacon was hungry, too, and he had 50 of his mates with him in the carriage. He could do anything he wanted on that train.

"Call the police?"

Simon Geoghegan of Ireland on the attack against England, Five Nations, 1994
Simon Geoghegan of Ireland on the attack against England, Five Nations, 1994
Shane Horgan, Ireland, touches down the ball to score his side's last minute try. RBS 6 Nations 2006

"Yes indeed and how many of them will there be?"

The pie was about six inches from the thug's mouth when a firm and deliberate hand clasped Biffa's wrist and prevented him from taking a bite. Geoghegan looked at the pie thief straight in the eye. He didn't blink. He said nothing. Everything stopped and time momentarily stood still.

Three things happened at the same time in this moment. Walsh finally acknowledged his imperfections and silently made peace with his maker, whom he was certain he would be meeting in the very near future.

Biffa assessed the situation. With 50 feral yobs behind him, no one in their right mind would challenge him; 999,999 people would have let him off with the pie - maybe this blonde streak of defiance was one in a million. Biffa looked at the risk/reward analysis. The force was strong with this one.

Geoghegan? 50 drunken yobs in Biffa's corner, but there was only going to be one winner.

Biffa sensed that he might eventually get the pie, but might not have teeth left to eat it with and so relented and handed back the pie. Geoghegan scoffed the pie, never once looking over his shoulder to see if there was any retribution coming his way. When journalists ask what it is like to play in a Test match - what is it like to tackle Jonah Lomu - Walsh found out first hand about the prime quality of playing international rugby in a train carriage. Courage.

What relevance has the great Swindon steak and kidney pie stand-off to what's happening in the Six Nations at the moment? This little vignette illustrates how players operate and react in a tight spot.

I spent Saturday night with the Mad Ferret and we embarrassed him by YouTubing his famous try against England. Wingers or outfield players are quite often labelled as 'finishers' when patently some of them are nothing of the sort. There are plenty of cheeky charlies who can receive a ball and score in the corner when the opposition have run out of tacklers.

There are plenty of outfield players who have work to do when they get the ball and they are not able to do what they are paid to do. Many wingers get over the try line and can't get the ball down. There are many players who get the ball in and around the try-line, but don't know how to balance four or five things that are necessary to score - beat the tacklers, dive low, stretch when you have to, know where the try-line is and know where the touchline is. Wingers who run into touch because they run out of space should be shot at dawn like the dogs they are and dispatched without a last supper, too.

When Geoghegan scored his try, he had much work to do. He stood up Tony Underwood and beat him for pace, stepped in then outside of Jon Callard, then realising that he was tight to the touchline, got the ball down quickly and got the job done. A class finisher, a great try.

Shane Horgan's two beauties against England are also in the pantheon of great Irish tries. The collection of Ronan O'Gara's cross-field kick over Josh Lewsey in Croker in 2007 is fantastic, but the one he scored in 2006 in Twickenham was one of the best finishes of all time. No one else but Horgan would have scored that try. He had to be six foot six inches to do it.

The spatial awareness of the try-line, touchline and the tackle of Lewis Moody all calculated at top speed. That was a finish. Tight spot, great finish. Last Saturday, we had a contribution which was worthy of entry into the pantheon of great finishes against England. A demonstration of how you handle yourself in a tight situation.

Like Geoghegan's try and Horgan's try in Twickenham, Robbie Henshaw's try last week was the winning of the game. It put the match out of reach. As Conor Murray dinked the ball perfectly, the degree of difficulty for both Henshaw and Alex Goode was high. Both players were chasing at nearly full pace with the ball coming back over their left-hand shoulder with eyes in their head looking backwards. It is a very difficult thing to do.

Goode realised that he was beaten for height and his open-jawed demeanour signified that he was in second place on all levels. In this situation, rule number one is that if you aren't going to catch the ball, make sure your opponent doesn't either.

Goode's right hand drags Henshaw's left arm back, while Henshaw had both hands ready to catch. Moving at full pace, while a metre in the air and engaged in physical conflict that often has an unsettling effect on the catcher. The ball momentarily goes forward off Henshaw, but in a blur of contact, Ireland's centre has his eye only on the ball and he collects with the second attempt.

It is a brilliant one-handed catch in a tight situation and he pulls the ball into himself. How does he know where touch-in goal is? How does he know that the spot he dots the ball down is in the field of play?

There is no more than a foot to play with. Henshaw lands off balance on his right foot after travelling four metres forward and being more than a metre in the air. He manages to dot down milliseconds after collecting the ball and milliseconds before his right shoulder broke the plane of touch in goal. It was a sublime piece of footballing skill and athleticism. Very few people in world rugby could have executed that feat. Israel Folau, Horgan and not too many more. A finisher's instinct and a special try. Hopefully there will be many more of them.

Meanwhile, the final whistle masked a moment which separated the quality of the two sides. The final play of the game had England hammering on Ireland's door, but thankfully out of reach on the scoreboard. Many things happened in the final 10 seconds as Ireland were caught short and flat. Felix Jones, surprisingly, was caught in no-man's land as Billy Twelvetrees prepared to pass the ball to Jack Nowell.

Twelvetrees' 'scoring' pass was called forward. From my position in the press box, I couldn't tell and frankly nobody cared as seconds later the final whistle went. The television slow-mo shows that Twelvetrees' hands were not pointing forward and although the ball probably did travel forward in flight - I have seen many tries awarded for the same sort of pass.

As Ian Madigan, Iain Henderson and Tommy Bowe corner-flagged as Nowell received the pass, there was a Ryan Crotty feeling of deja vu about the whole thing. If the try had been a match winner, there would have been an inquest, which would have put the Mahon Tribunal to shame.

Bowe, in his defence, had just made a vital tackle under the posts and was sprinting back across the in-goal to get back on to his wing when Nowell got over the line. Nowell went low and he dived before the line to get under the cover, but Madre Dio, where was his finisher's instinct?

The Exeter winger in the act of scoring let his left leg move out 90 degrees to his body and his boot smeared the touchline before he got the ball down.

Nowell had an eventful and industrious afternoon and was one of England's better players on the day, but such profligacy. Wow! International-class wingers finish in these situations.

Huge match, much at stake, tight situation. Maybe this championship will be decided by points difference - it's simple, you have to score when opportunity arrives. Nowell should be shot at dawn - Henshaw gets the pie!

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