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Henshaw endures tough evening after Schmidt opts for fullback switch

England’s sublime kicking game saw them toy with the Leinster man.

THE EVENING STARTED poorly for Robbie Henshaw in the 15 shirt as he lost his first big aerial contest under one of Ben Youngs’ superb box kicks.

It didn’t get any better for Henshaw there, in truth, as Joe Schmidt’s decision to shift the Leinster man from centre to fullback proved to be a failure on the night.

Henshaw is a superb rugby player and has been one of the best midfielders in the game in recent years. His torrid evening in Ireland’s 32-20 defeat to the English certainly does not mean he has no future in the 15 shirt.

Robbie Henshaw dejected after the game Henshaw dejected after Ireland's defeat. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

But England took full advantage of Schmidt’s selection call and their kicking game toyed with Henshaw all game long.

The 25-year-old did have one important aerial win in the 65th minute, only for Garry Ringrose to knock-on in midfield, but that was an exception to the rule as Youngs and Owen Farrell tested him severely.

Not only did England hang high balls over Henshaw, but they cleverly made him uncomfortable by repeatedly finding grass in the backfield too.

Ireland’s defensive system means their wings spend much of their time up in the defensive frontline. This adds extra bodies in a bid for linespeed, but it also means Ireland’s fullback is often left exposed with vast swathes of grass to cover.

Rob Kearney has been a master of that covering art for some years now and his excellence in backfield cover often goes underappreciated. 

That’s partly because the backfield is not regularly shown on live television broadcasts but also because good backfield coverage often means the opposition don’t kick.

Good backfield coverage also means opposition kicks tend to land into the hands of the fullback – with the reaction often being “poor kick” rather than “good backfield play.”

England’s kicking game forced Henshaw into testing situations, most notably just before Elliot Daly’s try when Henry Slade nudged a grubber kick behind and Henshaw retreated to slice a left-footed kick into touch.

From the ensuing lineout, England struck for their second try, with Daly’s grubber kick in behind forcing an error from the turning Jacob Stockdale.

Jonny May with Robbie Henshaw and Conor Murray Henshaw loses an aerial contest to Jonny May. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Henshaw was certainly not helped by what was a poor performance generally from Ireland’s backfield.

The final try – from another kick by Jonny May – was a prime example. Slade’s skip pass to May from a midfield scrum sent him scurrying down the left wing after replacement right wing Jordan Larmour was caught tight, ensuring Henshaw had to shift up from the backfield to make a possible tackle.

May dinked ahead but there was no sign of Stockdale providing the pendulum cover that should have arrived from wide on Ireland’s left. Instead, Slade was free to finish the well-weighted kick ahead.

For England’s first try, Ireland were caught out on Keith Earls’ right wing, though it was not a backfield issue. The Munster man was caught tight by a sublime Farrell pass and England skirted outside him to finish brilliantly through Daly and May.

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Earls only lasted 40 minutes of the game after taking some heavy blows in illegal challenges from Tom Curry, who was yellow carded, and Maro Itoje, who conceded a penalty only.

Indeed, Schmidt felt that the physical battering Earls took – he was withdrawn at half time with a hip injury – played into what was a demanding night for Henshaw.

“I thought Robbie did a pretty good job,” said Schmidt when asked if he felt Henshaw had been targeted by England. 

“Keith, for 20 minutes, was keen to run off the hip pointer but you can’t really run those off, so he was a little bit under pressure to cover the space and take responsibility for his side of the pitch.

Ben Youngs celebrates Henry Slade scoring their fourth try England scored four tries in their convincing victory. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“So Robbie had to almost double-job at times and I thought the volume of running he did, I thought he was as good as he could have been. I don’t think they necessarily targeted him.

“They extended the in-goals [in Twickenham] last year because they wanted to target that little bit of space behind so they did that again.

“We knew they were going to do that but you just need fully fit and, ideally, experienced guys who can cover that space really effectively.

“One of the things that makes it difficult is when they put you under pressure in the frontline and they did that with a lot of players running in front of the ball or players running incredibly hard onto the ball. It was difficult to contain their forward momentum.” 

Ireland have tactically outclassed so many teams in the Schmidt era but they were the victims in the kicking department here – though you could add physicality, technical defensive qualities, set-piece and attacking basics to the list of departments where England were better.

Picking Henshaw at fullback simply did not work for Ireland as England focused heavily on exploiting the selection. Henshaw was put in a hugely demanding situation, not having started a professional game of rugby in the position since his last season with Connacht in 2016. 

His most recent outing at fullback before tonight was 35 minutes for Leinster against Benetton in the Pro14. 

Now we wait to see if the shift is a permanent one or whether Kearney is called upon to steady the ship once again.

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Murray Kinsella

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