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Aki and Henshaw make impact as Ireland's midfield competition heats up

Joe Schmidt has strong options, with Garry Ringrose and Chris Farrell also in his World Cup squad.

A FIRST OUTING of the season is supposed to come with plenty of rust, but Robbie Henshaw certainly didn’t look like he hadn’t played for 15 weeks.

From early on in Ireland’s 19-10 World Cup warm-up win against Wales, the Athlone man was sharp and energetic.

robbie-henshaw-tackled-by-josh-adams-and-leigh-halfpenny Henshaw made an impressive return to action. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Henshaw made two superb reads in the opening minutes of the game, shutting down threatening Welsh attacks with intelligent interventions. 

His first-half try-saving tackle on Dan Biggar after the Welsh out-half intercepted Johnny Sexton’s pass was sensational, with Rob Kearney then swooping in to ensure Biggar couldn’t ground the ball over the tryline.

26-year-old Henshaw also showed his ability with ball in hand, making a total of 12 carries for Ireland and demonstrating direct force, as well as rapid footwork to beat defenders.

Perhaps most importantly for Ireland, Henshaw linked intuitively and effectively with Bundee Aki in midfield.

The Connacht man has looked leaner than ever in this pre-season campaign and is clearly in superb physical condition. He was impressive in Cardiff last weekend and picked up where he left off here, thundering into contact with glee.

Aki made 13 carries and two linebreaks for Ireland, beating two defenders along the way.

Pleasingly for Schmidt, Aki and Henshaw appeared to read each others’ intentions well, with both delivering an offload directly to their centre partner, allowing the Irish attack to flow.

rhys-patchell-goes-to-tackle-bundee-aki Aki was impactful again for Ireland. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

There were some negatives. Aki and Henshaw will be disappointed with Hadleigh Parkes having burst directly in between them on the Irish line to score Wales’ only try of the game. It’s certainly a difficult position to defend but Henshaw would have hoped to at least land a shoulder on Parkes, while Aki’s gaze was lured inwards by Welsh forwards closer to the ruck.

But this was an encouraging outing for Ireland’s midfield and it might have made for slightly uncomfortable viewing for Garry Ringrose, who has been a key figure at 13 under Schmidt in recent seasons. 

Ringrose came off the bench against Wales on the wing, the second time he’s done that in the past two weekends, and Schmidt has spoken about his versatility on a number of occasions recently. 

Of course, Aki and Henshaw know each other’s games particularly well from having played together at Connacht for two seasons, as well as with Ireland.

That said, Ringrose and Henshaw have built an extremely strong understanding at Leinster in recent seasons.

Schmidt has used Aki-Henshaw, Aki-Ringrose and Henshaw-Ringrose pairings at various stages for Ireland, depending on their fitness, while it’s also important to consider that Munster man Chris Farrell has been strongly in contention too.

Schmidt certainly has enviable options in midfield for the World Cup, but Aki and Henshaw laid down a strong impression in this final outing before departing for Japan.

garry-ringrose-with-george-north Ringrose came off the bench for Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Those two know each other inside out, they’re good friends and good players together,” said Schmidt post-match.

“I thought Robbie’s first carry, when he gets that ball in behind, Bundee knows exactly where to be and punches onto that ball really well. Instead of us having a ruck just on our 22, we’re actually going forward to the next ruck.

“They played very well together on the front foot but also defensively they got to space. Wales scored on the back of an intercept today, effectively, and considering we brought the ball down [at the lineout] and then gave it, it seemed they got a long way up the pitch very quickly [i.e. Schmidt felt they were offside].

“I do think our midfield defence with those two was very strong, but we have real confidence in the four midfielders that we have. They’re all very good defenders and they’re going to compete for spots.

“Some of it is about combinations and the fact that Bundee and Robbie know each other so well, but Robbie and Garry play together for Leinster and they know each other well.

“Chris Farrell has never let us down, so there’s a mix there.”

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Murray Kinsella

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