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Analysis: Robbie Henshaw's try built on foundation of Irish work rate

We’ve picked apart the build-up to the Connacht man’s wonderful score against England.

HAVING BEEN LEFT without an Ireland try to examine after the win over France, we’re happily able to look at an excellent effort from Robbie Henshaw following yesterday’s commanding 19-9 win over England.

Source: RBS 6 Nations/YouTube

The leap and finish from the Connacht man were superb, and we will look at those actions later in this piece, but head coach Joe Schmidt will have been as keen as ever to share the credit for the try around his team.

The Kiwi is sharp at picking up on the various details and actions that go into the five-point end product, and we can be certain he won’t have missed a thing in the build-up to Conor Murray’s kicked assist for Henshaw.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Ireland’s win over England was their work rate. Whatever about tactics, technique and skill, old-fashioned hard work still takes some beating.

It has to be combined with intelligence and the other factors mentioned above to be truly effective, but a huge work rate is a strong starting point in rugby. Schmidt got that from his players yesterday, something that was illustrated in the build-up to Henshaw’s try.

Where does it start?

One of the reasons we’ve opted to look at each of the tries Ireland score in this championship is to track where, when and how they come about.

The video above begins with Johnny Sexton’s excellent diagonal kick and Simon Zebo’s powerful tackle on Anthony Watson, but if we jump one phase further back, we can see that the field position for those actions was garnered through a box kick.

Source: RBS Six Nations

Scrum-half Murray would probably have preferred to get a little more distance on this kick, allowing the chasing Tommy Bowe to run onto the ball at pace, but the right wing makes the kick into a good one.

That’s a typical trait of this Ireland team under Schmidt. Even when their kicks are not ideal, the chasing players work extremely hard to either get into the air or immediately tackle the opposition fielders.

On this occasion, Bowe does well to get in front of Jack Nowell, raising a hand to the ball and effectively forcing the Englishman into a knock-on.

Bowe

That said, Nowell will look back at this instance as being his own error and England did generally struggle in the air yesterday. The Exeter Chief was brought into the side partly for his perceived superiority to Jonny May in the fielding stakes, but the solidity Stuart Lancaster was hoping for failed to transpire.

Bowe claims the loose ball after Nowell’s spill and feeds Devin Toner for the carry, but suddenly Ireland are in real danger of a turnover as play breaks down.

Vunipola

As we’ve highlighted above, England number eight Billy Vunipola is over the ball in the jackal position and has time to clamp his hands down over the ball. Frozen above, this looks like a certain poach, but Ireland’s arriving players get the job done to remove the threat.

First man in is Rory Best, who engages with Vunipola’s right shoulder, before Robbie Henshaw drives in behind to lend his weight. Still, at over 125kg and in an excellent position, the Saracens back row takes serious shifting.

Tommy O’Donnell is third man in for Ireland and makes the crucial contribution of removing one of Vunipola’s levers, destabilising him and driving him out of contention in the ruck.

TOD Source: RBS Six Nations

We see as much above, as the O’Donnell [number 20 with the black scrum cap on] binds onto Vunipola’s left leg, lifts and drives the heavy number eight backwards. Vunipola is forced to release the ball as that happens and it flicks up into Murray’s hands.

Kick to space

Murray moves the ball away to Sexton and again the decision is made to kick the ball. Was this not a chance to move the attack through the hands and into the wide channel on the left?

There were other opportunities for Ireland to do so in this game, but this instance is not one of them. Sexton identifies the space deep on the left and finds it precisely with a nice touch from the boot.

Space

As highlighted above, England centre Luther Burrell [red circle] is leading the typically aggressive linespeed from his side, essentially making the wide passing option riskier for Sexton.

Right wing Anthony Watson [yellow circle] has also pushed up to join the frontline defence, leaving all that space deep behind him. England’s defensive system demands that its wings make strong decisions in this regard, and Sexton exploits that cleverly here.

It’s tempting to want to run the ball in this situation, following a win under the box kick, but Schmidt’s team are all about playing to the available space. If that involves another kick, then so be it.

There’s also a nice detail from the Ireland out-half post-kick, as he immediately drops back to cover the deep space.

Sexton

There’s nothing beyond the normal here, but Sexton is alert enough to recognise that Rob Kearney and Zebo are both chasing his kick, meaning there is no cover in the backfield if England gather and boot it clear.

A common thing, but it is symbolic of how Ireland out-thought the English. Sexton and Murray were consistently two steps ahead of their opposite numbers and the halfbacks provided a real area of dominance for Ireland.

Kick chase

We’ve already underlined to the strength of Ireland’s kick chasing both in this piece and elsewhere, but the effort from Zebo for this try highlights that attribute once again.

Chase Source: RBS Six Nations

The Munster left wing sprints flat out to make up ground on the retreating Watson, then makes the chase stick by getting a good initial contact on the Englishman. Zebo then shows an upper body strength that he’s perhaps not renowned for by flipping Watson with a dynamic judo tackle.

It’s a technically strong defensive involvement, but also showcases a nice aggressive edge from Zebo that Schmidt has promoted since last summer. As we already know, Joe Schmidt’s wings are a little different to other coaches’, and this is illustrated here.

Kearney arrives in after the tackle to engage with Alex Goode over the ball, but Zebo is also impressively quick at getting back to his feet to help drive the England fullback away.

Zebo

This effort is typical of Zebo’s work rate in this game and, as we’ll see, this was not his final involvement during this passage of play.

Schmidt is big on his players not being satisfied with a single action on a particular series of phases; he’ll ask why they weren’t alive off the ball looking for a second touch, or back on their feet thirsting for another defensive action.

Jared Payne is third man into the ruck to help clear George Ford away from the ball, then Jordi Murphy carries out a clever bit of rucking on Jonathan Joseph to remove another English player from the equation.

Jordi

The England outside centre drives through Murphy in a strong position, and recognising that he is not ideally set up to resist that power, the Ireland number eight instead goes with Joseph’s momentum, pins his left arm in underneath Joseph and then holds him down after their contest goes to ground.

The holding means Joseph has no chance of bouncing back to his feet over the ball, potentially scooping it up or at least providing some sort of seal for his teammates to flood in behind and secure possession.

Kearney then returns back through the gate to see off Burrell, before Peter O’Mahony strides in to pick the ball and drive forward. It’s the Ireland fullback who is then first man into the next ruck, driving Ben Youngs away [perhaps coming in from the side this time, but Craig Joubert is happy with the entry].

Phase play

Possession inside the opposition 22 generally means one thing for Ireland. Unless there is a clear and obvious overlap on the outside edge, they are extremely direct in carrying the ball in this zone of the pitch.

It’s pick and gos, forward runners short off Murray or simple plays in midfield. It’s not really about intricate moves or risky passes here, rather about turning up the physicality and tempo [if possible], and attempting to bludgeon over those last few metres to the tryline.

As such, Murphy opts to pick and jam away to the left after O’Mahony’s carry, with Murray arriving in as guard over the ball and dissuading George Ford from anything more than a short testing counter ruck.

Bowe lends his weight behind Murray, as Kearney drives in on the right once again, moving Burrell back too. Back on his feet, O’Mahony picks and carries to the right, and suddenly there’s another brief turnover threat.

Youngs

As we see above, Youngs has clambered back to his feet as Dave Attwood chops down O’Mahony and is in a decent position over the ball as the Ireland blindside goes to ground.

Zebo and Paul O’Connell have quite a bit of space to make up before rucking, but they blast Youngs away and leave the ball sitting ideally for Murray at the back of the ruck.

Ruck Source: RBS Six Nations

Both players go right off their feet in this ruck, but there’s unlikely to be any referee in the world who pings them for driving through with momentum behind them in this manner.

On Ireland go, as Murray finds Jack McGrath with a pass and Mike Ross and O’Donnell carry out the next rucking actions, number eight Murphy arriving in as the guard over McGrath.

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Rory Best is the next man to carry the ball, and again Zebo is involved over the ball as he arrives in from stage left to help clear Dan Cole away.

Zeebs Source: RBS Six Nations

Toner joins from the right as Best is brought to deck, having started in a position just behind the hooker. For Zebo, there’s a hint more effort involved in making it to the ruck, having come from further away from the point of breakdown.

Direction

The red arrows above indicate the lines of Zebo and O’Connell [who ends up as guard] as they make their way across from that previous ruck against Youngs, while Sexton [yellow circle] is providing the orders, giving prompts to players who are under fatigue.

Murray sends the ball on to O’Mahony for his third carry of the passage, and the flanker becomes somewhat isolated as Joe Marler completes a good low tackle on him.

Robshaw

Once again, it’s a really strong turnover chance for England, with captain Chris Robshaw ready to pounce, while Cole and Vunipola are both in excellent supporting positions to provide stability for Robshaw.

It’s quite a desperate effort to save the ruck from Ireland, and it means slow, messy ball but they do enough to retain possession.

Rucking

Vunipola’s main intention here is to support Robshaw’s jackaling effort, so he latches on to his captain and looks to add that stability. Bowe is always going to struggle to smash him right out of the ruck, so instead lifts his left leg and ensures Vunipola has less of a base from which to aid Robshaw.

On the other side of the ruck, O’Donnell’s arrival has been badly impeded by Marler on the ground after making the tackle. It means the Munster openside is in a bad position to clear Dan Cole, who is targeting the ball alongside Robshaw.

O’Donnell, however, doesn’t just give up on the ruck, instead grappling at Cole’s arms [yellow arrow] and doing his utmost to prevent the tighthead from clamping onto the pill.

McGrath gets a grip around Cole’s neck and pulls him up and away to the side of the ruck, leaving space for Murray to dig into the ruck. The scrum-half does really well to loosen the ball, but England will view this as a real missed opportunity to end the attack.

Robshaw gets a foot on the ball legally, forcing Murray to fall on it. Again, it’s not a favourable situation for Ireland, but Zebo manages to buy some time against Dylan Hartley, before Toner arrives in for an important rucking action.

Toner Source: RBS Six Nations

Toner drives in with power on Hartley, also managing to shift Robshaw back as Zebo continues to work alongside him. Ross scoops up the ball, hitting Best for the next carry, McGrath, O’Connell and Murphy combining at the subsequent ruck.

Halfback mastery

As that phase is taking place, it’s worth looking at Sexton’s actions and how he scans the pitch constantly for space Ireland can exploit.

The forwards are tiring at this stage, having had to work hard in the carry and rucks, but they’ve managed to suck in defenders.

Below, we can see Sexton scanning the England defence, searching for any hint of a chink that his side can attack.

Looking

Having identified that, Sexton’s gaze is directed to his own backline within a split second, as we see below.

Looking 2

Having assessed the spacing, numbering and personnel in England’s defence, Sexton is now judging how best to use his own players in order to take advantage of that.

All factors considered, Sexton calls a play, as we can see below at the bottom of the image.

Calling

So what has Sexton actually seen and why does he call this particular play?

That first scan of the English defence has allowed Sexton to note an area of space in between centre Joseph and wing Nowell, which we’ve highlighted in the image below.

Gap

That’s where Sexton wants to attack, so turning to his own team he sees Payne and Kearney outside him, as well as Henshaw wide on the right wing holding the width and keeping England fullback Alex Goode in a wide position [both players are out of shot].

Sexton’s quick-working mind decides his old favourite loop play is ideal in this situation, hoping that Payne will be able to sit Joseph down as he releases his return pass to Sexton.

Sit Down

That’s what briefly happens as we see above, Joseph sitting back on his heels for a split second as Payne gives that return pass to Sexton.

England’s outside centre does recover his feet, but he’s stretching across onto the straightening Kearney and gets drawn into that high tackle. O’Donnell arrives in as first man to clear out George Kruis, Sexton aiding on the finish, but already Murray’s mind is working swiftly.

As with Sexton on the previous phase, Murray demonstrates quick thinking to take full advantage of the situation at hand, despite having covered plenty of ground over the preceding phases.

Advantage

Above, we can see Murray clocking the fact that Joubert is playing the penalty advantage for Joseph’s high tackle.

Within a second, the Ireland scrum-half is signalling to Henshaw that he’s going to loft that kick into the right corner for the centre to chase.

Signal

Henshaw is on exactly the same wavelength as his scrum-half and this does appear to be Ireland’s go-to tactic when they have a penalty advantage close to the opposition tryline. Schmidt’s side have attempted this same play on a number of occasions recently, but never with this level of success.

It’s a sensible ‘free play’ for Ireland to use in these situations, given the aerial prowess of their backline and this try demonstrates exactly why they have opted to use it on penalty advantage.

Henshaw Flat Source: RBS Six Nations

As we can see above, Henshaw is in a nice flat position to chase the kick from Murray, who does superbly well to place such an accurate kick given the pressure he is under from Dave Attwood at the ruck.

Much like Sexton, Murray is a picture of composure for Ireland, remaining focused on his job here despite the attentions of Attwood.

A fine first finish

Finally, we come to Henshaw’s brilliant finish, of which most of the analysis has already likely been done across the country. The Connacht man’s GAA and fullback experience both certainly come into the equation, as he times his leap expertly.

Technically, it’s excellent from Henshaw as he extends his arms out in that ‘rifle sight’ style, giving himself every chance of an early contact with the ball in the air. It’s an advantageous position for Henshaw, especially as Goode is forced to turn and move back to the ball before jumping to compete, whereas the Ireland centre only moves forward.

Henshaw

What makes the catch more impressive is that Goode takes Henshaw’s left arm out of the equation even before he has properly landed [above], leaving the 21-year-old to complete the catch with just his right arm.

To do so, and then snap the ball down with the same hand before his upper body reaches the touchline takes some dexterity, but Henshaw manages the feat with little fuss. A fine way to finish his first try for Ireland.

Henshaw was one of the lesser involved players in the build-up phases to this point, perhaps leaving him with that crucial explosive energy needed to sprint and then leap to gather Murray’s kick.

Behind him, 14 highly-fatigued teammates were rewarded for their tremendous work rate.

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