THIS TIME LAST year, Irish rugby had some doubts as to the future of its centre partnership.
However, the promise shown by Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne in their first Six Nations campaign together has eased the concerns, particularly with the former having stood out to such an extent.
Henshaw has long been regarded as one of the most talented young players in the country, so to see him excel under the tutelage of Joe Schmidt bodes well for Ireland’s future in midfield.
The 21-year-old has won just 10 international caps and is still only in his third full season at senior professional level, meaning there is lots of time and space for improvement.
To see Henshaw already performing at such a high level for Ireland is hugely exciting for Schmidt, the centre’s teammates, and Ireland’s supporters.
Below, we’ve taken a look at some of the factors that allowed Henshaw to perform so well in his first Six Nations. The examples used are from last weekend’s win over Scotland, but the intention is to highlight traits that were evident in across all five games.
Before we look at the technical elements of Henshaw’s game that made him a success in this Six Nations, it’s worth pointing out the 21-year-old’s ability to transfer his obvious talent into the highly-pressurised environment of Test rugby.
International coaches naturally search for the most technically-proficient, athletically-dominant, and tactically-intelligent players they can find, but perhaps most important of all are the individual’s mental skills.
Oftentimes, international rugby players are no more technically/athletically/physically ‘gifted’ than club or former school teammates who are rarely or never capped, but they possess the mental strength to transfer their skillset into the Test match arena.
This applies across all levels of the game, and any sportsperson can probably think of examples in their own direct experience: the incredibly effective club player who simply couldn’t make an impact when selected to move up a level.
The very best international rugby players are exactly the opposite; they actually perform better at higher levels of the game, with stronger players around them and the added pressure bringing about improved performances.
Encouragingly, Henshaw appears to be of that mould.
That is not to suggest for a moment that the Connacht centre is not technically proficient, athletically dominant and tactically intelligent. He is all of those things and still learning in those domains, but he looks to have the mental edge too.
We could delve into the nature vs. nurture debate in exploring how Henshaw has built a strong mindset, but let’s look instead to more recent experiences that have aided his belief and made the adaptation to starting for Ireland that little bit easier.
During last year’s Six Nations, Henshaw spent almost the entire tournament as part of Schmidt’s squad, training with the group every day, learning from Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy and rightfully feeling he was part of the international set-up.
Henshaw was involved on merit as a player, of course, and was close to match day squads on a number of occasions, even acting as the 24th man for Ireland when they claimed their Six Nations title with victory in Paris.
Those experiences counted this season, never more obviously than last weekend in Murrayfield.
“I knew a bit of what it was like, not actually being on the pitch and actually winning the game, but being involved in the game,” Henshaw told us post-match in Edinburgh.
Schmidt clearly rated the former Marist College man as a player, but he also understood the importance of having Henshaw consistently involved. The centre could see he belonged, could see that he was already pushing O’Driscoll and D’Arcy hard.
Dive further back in Henshaw’s career and there are likely similar examples under Eric Elwood, Nigel Carolan and Pat Lam at Connacht, or the likes of Mick Loftus, Tony Dolan Niall Moran, Donal Scannell and Cian O’Brien at Marist College.
Henshaw himself deserves the bulk of the credit though. He’s the one controlling his own thoughts, believing in his ability to dominate far more experienced international players and deliver on exactly the detail Schmidt demands.
As the 21-year-old looks to continue his rapid growth as a player, those mental skills will remain of paramount importance.
With 57 carries across Ireland’s five games in this Six Nations, Henshaw was behind only fullback Rob Kearney  in terms of the raw numbers.
It’s probable that Jamie Heaslip  would have exceeded both figures had he played all five fixtures, but the point is that Henshaw was a primary carrier for Ireland.
His 175 metres gained, 16 defenders beaten and four clean linebreaks provide some indication of his effectiveness, although they don’t tell us how the inside centre did damage.Source: RBS Six Nations
Henshaw is a big unit, standing 6ft 3ins tall and weighing over 100kg, but his footwork is excellent too, meaning the Connacht man doesn’t depend only on his size to get over the gainline.
There are examples of Henshaw’s pre-contract footwork in the vast majority of his carries, but the first clip in the video above gives us a good illustration as he steps around Matt Scott’s tackle to make yardage.
Here, the Athlone man is taking a simple, short, hard line off out-half Johnny Sexton and knows he’s going to be under pressure almost immediately upon catching the ball. His power and size mean it’s tempting to simply back himself to run directly into Scott, but Henshaw turns on his footwork instead to ensure gainline progress.
There’s a subtle shift of his bodyweight to Scott’s right shoulder just before Henshaw catches the ball, then he pushes off his left leg to take him inside the weak tackle attempt and over the gainline.
This is the most simple part of Henshaw’s play we could possibly highlight, but the point to to underline the centre’s ability to always make the collisions favourable with his footwork in open play, particularly when defenders are coming up quickly.
The second carry in the above video sees Henshaw used on first phase as Ireland look to exit their defensive area of the pitch, and again the 21-year-old makes gainline progress despite being under pressure.
The pre-contact footwork is evident for a second time, Henshaw darting back to Sam Hidalgo-Clyne’s inside shoulder, before we get a nice demonstration of the centre’s upper body power and that aggressive edge he brings in contact.
Henshaw thirsts to get over the gainline for his side as often as possible, something that shows up in the third carry of the video. He spins inside Finn Russell’s tackle, then wriggles his body up the pitch on the ground before releasing the ball; every inch counts.
The final carry of the compilation comes from an attacking set-piece and this type of carry is where Schmidt’s side used Henshaw very often in this championship. Clean ball off the lineout, put it in Henshaw’s hands and get over the gainline swiftly.
We took a look at this particular Ireland lineout play in a piece on Monday, and it’s ideally built for a man like Henshaw.
The move allows him to use his bulk and speed to gather real momentum before Russell even has a chance to get close for the tackle, and already Ireland are five metres beyond the gainline.
Henshaw’s ball presentation is generally very clean too, another of the little details Schmidt pays attention too, meaning the majority of his carrying allows Ireland to play quickly away from the ruck.
Winning the contact is a guaranteed method of making the rucking players’ lives easier, and Henshaw consistently does that in the direct role Schmidt tasks him with.
Many coaches like their inside centre to be the defensive leader of the team, and Henshaw has stepped up notably in that regard. With a total of 63 completed tackles, he was top of the charts for Ireland in this area.
Henshaw was also credited with 16 missed tackles, which might seem rather worrying but also points to the folly of the numbers.
There were five ‘misses’ against the Scots and six against England, but having reviewed each incident, we would probably only mark three of those 11 as genuine missed one-on-one tackles.
Others saw Henshaw rush up and shephard tacklers into teammates inside him, or get important contact in on the carrier that actually contributed to a teammate completing the tackle. The rawest numbers just don’t explain the subtleties of rugby.
Naturally, Schmidt will want Henshaw consistently turning in defensive performances like that against Wales [when he was credited with zero missed tackles] but the fact is that the inside centre is already an effective defender for Ireland.
We don’t need to highlight the bigger hits Henshaw makes in this article, as you’re more than likely fully acquainted with those moments. The same aggression and power Henshaw brings to the carry is evident in his tackling, and he never misses an opportunity to drop a strong shoulder into an opponent’s upper body.
On other occasions, Henshaw is happy to drift and complete low tackles, with his tackle selection having been strong throughout the championship.Source: RBS Six Nations
Of further encouragement are the good habits in Henshaw’s defensive game, some of which we see in the first clip in the video above. The centre gets up off the line with his teammates in attempt to pressure the Scots in their own 22.
Henshaw’s body position approaching the tackle is strong; he’s not too upright, nor is he too coiled up for the impending hit, both of which might leave him susceptible to missing the tackle.
He’s not totally committed to the tackle either, leaving himself in a position to drift on to the next attacker if Adam Ashe passes the ball.
When it becomes clear that the Scotland back row is definitely going to carry, Henshaw heads into the contact looking to slap down a potential Ashe fend.
It’s a skill that D’Arcy and O’Driscoll have both utilised during their careers, and it’s certainly useful against powerful fenders such as Ashe. Henshaw’s slap down isn’t totally effective this time, but even still it’s a good habit to be developing.
Ashe gets his left forearm up towards Henshaw’s face, but the Ireland midfielder demonstrates his upper body strength again to wrestle the Glasgow Warrior to the ground well behind the gainline.
The second short clip we’ve included in the video above shows off Henshaw’s good decision making, which has stood out in this Six Nations. Again, it’s far from the most crunching of tackles he made in the championship, but again it shows good habits.
Firstly, Henshaw gets his head up as the phase begins to assess the options Russell has to this left. There’s Scott giving cues he’ll come on a short, hard line, while Stuart Hogg and Tim Visser are showing signs of running out the back of Scott, with two further attacking players on the outside edge.
Henshaw processes the information and opts to just slow his linespeed a little, wary of being overdrawn by the running lines of Hogg and Visser, and therefore drifting off Scott too early and leaving a hole for him to run into.
With Jared Payne and Tommy Bowe keeping their linespeed on, Henshaw is left behind just a touch and that creates something of a dog leg in the defensive line, but it just shows that perfect line integrity is not always the most important thing.
Here, Henshaw is allowing himself to keep track of Scott, while also leaving the possibility of shifting past the Scotland centre if Russell does pass out the back door. The Ireland 12 is also taking into account the narrowness of the defensive channel.
The passage ends with Henshaw completing a firm low tackle, allowing Jamie Heaslip to jackal over the ball and win a turnover.
As we so often repeat, defence is founded on work rate, so we have to make a quick mention of Henshaw’s. The Connacht centre consistently worked hard on both sides of the ball for Ireland, but the effort particularly stood out in defence.
Seeing Henshaw complete multiple tackles in the one defensive set was common, as the youngster bounced back onto his feet and worked back into the defensive line after each hit.
On kick chase too, Henshaw was extremely hungry, either hounding down the opposition receiver or, more often, being in position to make secondary tackles if and when the receiver managed to shift the ball.
Similarly, Henshaw’s appetite for hard work showed up well in the rucking stakes, where he married strong technique with a willingness to clear defensive bodies when required to.
Schmidt frequently references his backs’ kicking games [left footers, right footers, long kicking, short kicking] when discussing their merits in terms of selection, so it’s been interesting to follow Henshaw in this regard.
Given his recent history as a fullback with Connacht and GAA past, Henshaw has had a strong training ground in this area of the game, although we only saw him kick the ball five times in the championship.
Several of them were of the grubber variety, as with both against the Scots.Source: RBS Six Nations
The first is a nice grubber up the right-hand side with his right foot, while the second is a more successful touch with his left boot. To be comfortable enough to kick off both sides in a Six Nations game shows Henshaw’s confidence, but also underlines his high skill level.
There were longer efforts for territory in the other three kicks Henshaw had in this championship, and it’s comforting for Schmidt to know he has another kicking option in his backline, one that can certainly be improved and pushed towards further growth.
The uninitiated who watched Henshaw during this Six Nations could be forgiven for thinking that he is all about direct ball-carrying, as that’s largely what he was asked to do by Ireland.
Henshaw passed the ball 15 times in Ireland’s five games, with a peak of five against Wales but just two in each of the fixtures against Italy and England. Clearly, Henshaw is not a distributor in Schmidt’s plans, though that doesn’t mean he cannot pass.
The Buccaneers clubman looked entirely comfortable in the looser circumstances of the Scotland game, even if he only passed the ball three times. It would be foolish to dismiss Henshaw as a straight-up bosh merchant as he possesses strong handling skills.
That Henshaw racked up zero offloads across the five games points to a collective element in Ireland’s approach, and there is certainly room for growth in this area too.
Henshaw consistently gets over the gainline for Ireland and if he can get his hands free in the more favourable collisions, there is scope for offloading.
For now, Schmidt is happier to use Henshaw’s almost guaranteed gainline progress as the perfect target for rucking players.
Space to grow
That handling ability that Henshaw has in his armoury, the offloading ability, an eye for space and his willingness to push his skills in terms of kicking all point to the most exciting aspect of the player – he still has major scope to improve.
Working with Schmidt and his Ireland coaching team, as well as Pat Lam and his staff at Connacht, will help Henshaw to grow his game season-on-season. That he only turns 22 in June underlines how far in the game Henshaw can go.
The most important man in the mix is Henshaw himself, but we can take encouragement from how well he stepped up to first-choice status for Ireland this season.
The Athlone man has all the tools he needs to achieve whatever he sets his sights on.
– First published 17.29