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Henshaw blow will be felt but Ireland confident as they head for Athlone

Joe Schmidt has competition for places in key areas of the pitch and his squad has real belief.

IT WOULD HAVE been a proud experience for Robbie Henshaw to be part of the Ireland squad that will gather in Athlone tomorrow evening ahead of a two-day mini-camp at Buccaneers RFC.

The Leinster centre may still be a presence at his home club for Thursday’s open training session, but he won’t be getting stuck in on the pitch as he begins his rehabilitation from a shoulder procedure earlier today.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt and his players meet in Athlone tomorrow evening. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ruled out of the remainder of the Six Nations, the initial outlook is that Henshaw will miss Leinster’s Champions Cup quarter-final against Saracens on 1 April, although there is some hope that he will be back in action before the end of the season.

It’s a major blow for country and province, with Ireland losing one of their most impactful and influential players for the rest of the championship.

Just as himself and Bundee Aki were beginning to look fluid alongside each other and with Henshaw clearly enjoying his move out to the 13 channel, the 24-year-old has been chopped down by injury.

Ireland will gather with a group of around 22 players tomorrow evening, while the remainder of the wider Six Nations squad will be back with their provinces in order to get Guinness Pro14 game time this weekend.

One man who is set to be part of Ireland’s reduced group is Chris Farrell, who was one of the extra bodies for their warm-up before the Italy win, providing cover in case of any late injuries.

The Munster midfielder made his international bow in November and word from Ireland camp is that Schmidt is pleased with how quickly Farrell is learning and retaining the reams of new information involved in Test rugby.

Garry Ringrose is nearing a return – though Schmidt said he is a doubt even for this weekend with Leinster – and he remains a possibility for Ireland in midfield against Wales in Dublin on 24 February.

Right now, it appears that Farrell is the favourite to wear 13 versus the Welsh and though he is developing rapidly and has an underappreciated distribution game to go along with his obvious physical strengths, he is not at Henshaw’s level yet.

Chris Farrell Chris Farrell showed his promise in November. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Six Nations exposure might well move Farrell towards that standard but, realistically speaking, the loss of Henshaw is big for Ireland.

A defensive leader whose work rate this season has been very impressive, Henshaw’s physical prowess at the highest level has been vital for Ireland, while his more creative skills have shown up promisingly in recent weeks.

With 33 international caps and a Lions tour behind him, his experience will be missed too, while Henshaw invariably delivers in the biggest games, clearly enjoying the high stakes.

Ireland will move on from the disappointment quickly though, such being the way in professional sport. It’s a shame for Henshaw to miss out on leading the Athlone camp, but Schmidt has to look forward immediately.

Though Ireland’s statement today says Tadhg Furlong is “expected to be fit” for the Wales game, there is rarely 100% certainty with soft tissue injuries and seemingly even more so when it comes hamstrings.

Furlong being such an important player, it’s positive for Ireland that they have a rest weekend ahead and then another after the Wales game – perhaps meaning Furlong could feature even if he doesn’t return to peak fitness.

If not, Andrew Porter’s excellence against Italy was reassuring, although John Ryan’s greater experience should not be discounted just yet.

The Munster man helped to take Zebre’s scrum apart last weekend and while Schmidt may have doubts after a scrum penalty on Ryan’s side against France, he will also look at two strong scrums from the Cork man prior to that.

Jefferson Poirot tackles Tadhg Furlong and Peter O’Mahony Ireland hope to have Furlong fit for Wales. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Ireland will do everything in their power to have Furlong fit, of course, and his rehabilitation will move up a few gears in Athlone on Wednesday and Thursday, the hope being to have the tighthead available to train fully next week.

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Word on Jack Conan’s shoulder is good too, leaving Schmidt with some big calls to make in his back row, with Sean O’Brien potentially coming back into the mix there as he strives for a full recovery from a hip injury.

The return of such a proven world-class player – one who has shown he can go straight back into Test rugby before – would be a huge boost for Ireland over the closing rounds of the championship, even if the likes of Dan Leavy and Conan have shown their quality in recent weeks.

James Ryan was managed for the Italy game, having stood out so much in Paris, and he now comes back into the fold after Devin Toner gave Schmidt more food for thought over the weekend alongside Iain Henderson – who was taken off at half-time in a tactical decision.

Jack McGrath was excellent at loosehead prop to keep the pressure on Cian Healy, and Schmidt had always spoken about rotating those two throughout the championship.

All in all, Schmidt and Ireland are still in a solid place despite Henshaw’s injury. His absence will make them a weaker team, but a return for O’Brien at some point in the next four weeks could balance it out in other aspects.

With competition for places at loosehead, lock, the back row and midfield, Schmidt’s players can’t afford to ease up this week either, even with a shorter training week.

Jacob Stockdale celebrates scoring a try with Keith Earls Ireland's back three is growing as a unit. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The increasingly settled-looking back three of Keith Earls, Jacob Stockdale and Rob Kearney benefited from another start together against Italy, while Aki is growing as a force at international level.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton purred with class yet again at Lansdowne Road on Saturday and they are essential to this Irish bid for a first Six Nations since 2015.

For his part, Schmidt will drive his players on while doing his best to ignore the noise outside Ireland’s so-called ‘bubble.’

The Ireland head coach opted not to speak to rugby journalists in an additional embargoed written word ‘huddle’ after his main 15-minute press conference following the Italy win, breaking a longstanding tradition.

The Ireland management are unhappy with elements of the Irish rugby media coverage this season – including focus on Bundee Aki’s debut, CJ Stander’s contract and Gerbrandt Grobler – and have decided against continuing with this huddle for now.

The decision will likely cause more friction between the media and Ireland, rather bizarrely given that on-field performances have been consistently strong, and it is already being debated publicly.

Schmidt has often insisted that he attempts to ignore what is said and written about his team, but clearly the focus of some of the coverage this season has frustrated himself and his fellow coaches.

They will do their best to shield their players from any further controversies, however, as they look to build on a promising first fortnight in this Six Nations.

Ireland must absorb the loss of Henshaw, but Schmidt’s men have a sense of growing confidence about them. That famous drop goal in Paris has instilled belief in this group and they will give themselves a fine shot at trophy success.

- This article was updated at 7.20am on 13 February to correct an error that stated Chris Farrell was one of Ireland’s extra bodies before their win over France.

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Murray Kinsella

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