Johnny Sexton chats to his new midfield pairing. Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Schmidt confident that Payne and Henshaw can impress for Ireland

‘Unless you give opportunity, you’re not going to know,’ says the Kiwi head coach of his midfield pairing.

IRELAND COACH JOE Schmidt is confident that Robbie Henshaw will fit comfortably into the 12 shirt against South Africa, as Jared Payne makes his international debut at outside centre.

Schmidt believes that the experience surrounding the midfield duo will be an important factor as they look to combine as successfully as Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll have done for Ireland in recent years.

D’Arcy misses out on selection this weekend, with Schmidt explaining that the veteran centre’s struggles with a calf injury since Leinster’s win away to Castres in the Heineken Cup two weekends ago meant he was unable to train fully.

That in turn allowed Henshaw and Payne to build up an exciting understanding at the Carton House sessions.

It was at the start of last week what was available to us,” said Schmidt of his selection this afternoon. “Robbie is a good centre and his flexibility to play 12 or 13 is similar to Jared. That’s the way they trained last week and we’ve decided to keep a bit of continuity with that.

“Gordon was injured last week, and he’s probably back to full fitness now, but we weren’t absolutely sure of that at the start of the week. We get small windows of preparation, we come together for very brief windows of time. We just felt we were part way along a pathway that was looking reasonably positive.

“The two lads have gone in there together and done a good job. To be fair to Gordon D’Arcy, he’s helped immeasurably. He’s been a mentor for Robbie and Jared this week.

Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne Henshaw shifts inside to wear the 12 shirt. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“It was going to be a new pairing no matter what happened and we decided to go with the pairing that we had the most time to work with.”

At just 21, Henshaw will win his fourth cap this weekend. The Connacht man looks physically ready for the task, although the fact that he is in an unfamiliar midfield pairing adds to the test of his abilities against the Boks.

Schmidt says the only way to find out is to put Henshaw to the test. Payne makes his international bow against the second best team in world rugby, but again the Ireland coach is comfortable.

I think Handré Pollard has played through the Rugby Championship as a 20-year-old kid. Jan Serfontein has played as a 21-year-old kid. I mean when is he ready? Unless you give opportunity, you’re not going to know.

“So it’s a really important benchmark game for us, those two guys and the other players.

The lack of experience in Ireland’s centre partnership is more than compensated for by those around them, according to Schmidt. While he could have waited until the Georgia fixtures to run Henshaw and Payne together, the Boks will provide a sterner examination.

“I think that inside them is Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, outside them is Tommy Bowe with over 50 caps, Simon Zebo with less caps – again we’re a little restricted with injuries there, but we’re excited about what Simon’s going to bring. Rob Kearney is at the back with lots of experience.

Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw Schmidt has suggested that Payne and Henshaw will be interchangeable. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“There’s never going to be a perfect time I don’t think, but in the preparation window we had available to us, the quality of play that both Jared and Robbie, even over the last two years, we’ve gone into it with a little bit of confidence that they will give a good account of themselves.

“It’s a great test for them, and there’s no doubt it will be a big test for them.”

Henshaw has been operating almost exclusively as an outside centre for Connacht this season, although he did get a stint at inside centre against the Exeter Chiefs in the Challenge Cup last month.

“I know he started the game at 13,” says Schmidt. “If he ran at 12, it’s no different to Jean de Villiers – he defends at 13 but he’s got 12 on his back.

“That’s what I said about centres. I do think that centres normally have that changeability and with Robbie and Jared, you may see a bit of that anyway.”

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