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Italy's rucking players would be best advised to watch out for Hendo

The 23-year-old lock shows a constant appetite for counter-rucking.

THERE ARE FEW defensive acts that excite rugby supporters as much as a jackal turnover at the breakdown.

The likes of David Pocock have made an art of the skill, pouncing straight onto the ball post-tackle, clamping into position and either ripping it clean away from the carrier or forcing the penalty.

Key to this type of disruption of possession is arriving on scene first, beating the rucking player in the ‘shoulder battle.’ The race to the ball is essential on both sides.

Iain Henderson has shown he is more than capable of that turnover, but his armoury also includes destructive counter-rucking skill. Even when the rucking player gets there first, the 23-year-old so often refuses to accept the ruck as a lost cause.

HENDO

The sight of Henderson violently counter-rucking is an increasingly regular one, as against Wales in the World Cup warm-ups in the example above.

There was more evidence of Henderson’s counter-rucking against Canada at this World Cup when he started in the second row alongside Paul O’Connell and there’s likely to be further examples this weekend against Italy.

Cian Healy is another eager practitioner of the counter-ruck, although Henderson says it’s not the case that this powerful pair have been specifically tasked with counter-rucking.

I think it’s spotting opportunities, trying to work to feet, work to your feet as fast as possible (after the tackle) and then having a glance to see if you can maybe do a bit of damage there,” says Henderson.

“You’ll see many times where you might have a dip into the ruck and you don’t get any benefit out of it. The odd time when the (rucking player) isn’t quite as switched on as he should be, you might reap some rewards from it.

“However, it’s more of a spur of the moment kind of thing.”

The ‘work to feet’ part is key here.

Joe Schmidt’s reservation around Henderson in the past was his work rate over the course of an 80-minute shift. The recent evidence is that the message has been hammered home to the lock, as he fights back to his feet after completing a first action and strives to make a second contribution, even a third.

Iain Henderson Henderson starts for Ireland against Italy on Sunday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Now it’s about using his increased fitness and appetite in the smartest way possible, meaning that ploughing into every single defensive ruck is not always the answer. Oftentimes, resisting the temptation to slam into a stationary guard over the ball and instead joining the defensive line is the right thing to do.

“I think the more you do, the more you realise that you can’t go chasing every ruck,” says Henderson.

“I think that’s where Wales are very good, and Scotland are very good as well, in getting 13, 14, maybe even sometimes 15 defenders on their feet in the line and not wasting players in the ruck.

It comes to the stage where if you’re trying to counter-ruck and don’t get any benefit, with a tackler in there too, you’re just shortening the defensive line and it gives them opportunities out the back.

“You need to be a bit more switched on and clued in. Maybe if you make the tackle, get back to your feet and counter-ruck, maybe do the two jobs at once, which is more beneficial to the team.”

One to keep an eye out for on Sunday for sure, especially if you’re an Italian standing guard at the ruck.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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