Sunday 17 February 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Robbie Henshaw call creates new possibilities for Schmidt'

It would be premature to write Kearney off but selection of Athlone man is intriguing

Robbie Henshaw (pictured), Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose are set to be part of Joe Schmidt’s plans. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Robbie Henshaw (pictured), Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose are set to be part of Joe Schmidt’s plans. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

It has taken more than a year for Joe Schmidt to select his team with Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose fully fit and available.

Rather than choosing between them, Ireland's most successful coach is set to pick all three.

The deployment of Henshaw at full-back has been on the coach's radar as far back as November 2017 when the Athlone man was named on the bench to face Fiji.

Schmidt wanted to give him 20 minutes in role, but events overtook the plan and, with Joey Carbery off injured and the team struggling to overcome the Islanders, Henshaw was sent on in midfield.

A week later, he was ruled out of the final autumn international against Argentina. When the team got back together for the Six Nations, Ringrose was out and he lined out in the No 13 shirt before getting injured against Italy.

It was part of an injury-hit 2018, one that saw him perform brilliantly when asked but only manage 12 appearances for Leinster and five for Ireland.

A hamstring injury ruled him out of the November internationals and Aki, who has started every big game since he qualified to play for Ireland, partnered the increasingly impressive Garry Ringrose in midfield.

They were central to the win over the All Blacks and have continued their form since. It would have been incredibly harsh to break up the partnership.

It appears likely that the team to face England will feature two changes from that win over New Zealand. Conor Murray was always going to come back in when fit and Kieran Marmion is out anyway, while Kearney was expected to start despite only managing three games since November.

The full-back overcame a shoulder injury to face the All Blacks, before picking up a dead leg against Bath at the Rec. He returned to face Ulster and suffered a quad muscle injury that kept him out of the European games against Toulouse and Wasps.

Garry Ringrose. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Garry Ringrose. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Rather than take him to Portugal for the pre-tournament training camp, Schmidt opted to leave him with Leinster last weekend and he played for an hour against Scarlets before being replaced. It was a less-than-impressive performance, but the full-back has a lot credit in the bank.

Perhaps the lingering effects of his injuries carried into this week; Schmidt will reveal all today.

But his decision to select Henshaw at full-back opens up all sorts of possibilities for Ireland.

It is too soon to start penning the obituaries for Kearney's career, but if the 25-year-old performs well at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday it is hard to see him being shifted for the second game against Scotland.

Henshaw made his debut at full-back in 2013, but hasn't played an international there since. Since joining Leinster from Connacht, he has almost exclusively been used as a hard-carrying, tough-tackling centre.

That may have been his role for the majority of his senior career, but it is not that long ago that he was making his name in the No 15 shirt.

Bundee Aki. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Bundee Aki. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Given time and space in the position, he can be a devastating attacker. One only has to go back to Connacht's league-winning season to recall his influence in attack when he created Bundee Aki's try at Thomond Park as the westerners made history in Limerick. Like the now-retired Jared Payne, he offers an alternative style of play from No 15.

It remains to be seen if he can provide the same security in the back-field as he covers the vast swathes of green space as Kearney does with seeming ease and England will be sure to test him, while it is also a worry that all those years in the tight spaces of the midfield have dented his top-end pace.

Plumped

But a selector as shrewd as Schmdit has plumped for him as a starter ahead of Kearney, Jordan Larmour, Will Addison and Andrew Conway for one of the biggest matches of the season. That faith is founded in what the coach has seen from a player he knows well.

If Henshaw thrives he provides 32-year-old Kearney with the latest challenge to his supremacy.

For more than a decade he has been an automatic choice as Ireland's No 15, seeing off Girvan Dempsey, Geordan Murphy, Felix Jones, Simon Zebo and Payne amongst other rivals.

This is another challenge that he'll attempt to meet head on and that response is exactly what Schmidt is looking for.

With Payne retiring and Zebo gone to France, the coach would have been concerned by his lack of depth at full-back and he is fully aware of the limitations imposed by the size of a 31-man World Cup squad.

The selection of Henshaw is a risk, but it's one that could open up all sort of possibilities.

Irish Independent

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