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Dublin: 15 °C Tuesday 23 April, 2019
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'Exciting opportunity' as Schmidt unleashes McCloskey and Henshaw midfield

Robbie Henshaw has served his apprenticeship between Jared Payne and Johnny Sexton, now it’s his turn to control the defence and the 13 jersey.

IT WASN’T LOST exactly, but the addition of notable big man Stuart McCloskey to Ireland’s midfield has certainly overshadowed the shift of Robbie Henshaw to the  number 13 shirt.

Connacht’s outgoing star has done nothing but impress since stepping straight into the pro arena after leaving school. First, as a fullback and latterly as Ireland’s inside centre. But Henshaw is at home one slot further out.

Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Combining Henshaw, 22, with McCloskey, 23, was a dream pairing for many before this year’s Six Nations kicked off. The way head coach Joe Schmidt describes it, he happened upon the duo almost by accident through the absence (for one reason or another) of Luke Marshall and Jared Payne from training last week. This is one area where the Kiwi undoubtedly had his contingency plan in the barrel ready to fire.

“The bottom line is that we’ve got some good confidence in Stu and Robbie,” says Schmidt after naming a team he hopes can claim the first win of the post-Paul O’Connell era.

“Jared did an unbelievable job on one leg in the second half, controlling the French attack. Robbie had a really good window of opportunity to learn from him over the last sort of 14 months. And to learn from the previous Six Nations where he spent the whole time with us learning the 13 role. For him to step up now is an exciting opportunity for him.”

The reason Schmidt chose to give Henshaw that extended apprenticeship before pushing him out a channel to outside centre, is that the position is such a notoriously difficult place to ply your trade. Attacks in that area come from all angles, instant decisive decisions have to be made on almost every phase to stop the connection between midfield and the back three coming apart at the seams.

The Kiwi explains it better: ”13 is the toughest position to defend in.

You’re always slightly unattached from your outside (wing) until he can come into the picture. Because he’s sometimes tapered forward in the field, and you’ve got to be able to sense what the right option is and, maybe, close it. Or, maybe, just push off it and stay alive.

“Those are the decisions that are probably toughest.

“Carrying the ball and distributing, Robbie’s a class operator at both those things. I think he’ll be really good defensively, it’s just a little bit tougher than in the 12 channel where he has been between Jared and Johnny (Sexton).”

“He had really good experience either side of him and that’s given him experience to understand a bit more about what it is to defend against world class players.”

Along with his own role, it will fall to Henshaw to now join Sexton in marshalling McCloskey through his debut. The 10-12 zone will be fraught with testing lines from the elusive Anthony Watson and Mike Brown, feeding off the twin distribution threat of George Ford and Owen Farrell.

It’s a difficult task on the very biggest of stages. So Andrew Trimble, a physical young international himself once upon a time, was asked if McCloskey was capable of handling the pressure.

Andrew Trimble Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“Handling it is probably an understatement,” says the ever-reliable wing.

“I’ve seen first hand what Stu’s done this season and how impressive he’s been. But there’s nothing that goes on behind the scenes that you can’t see with your own eyes watching league or European games.

“He steps up to whatever challenge is in front of him, whatever physicality, and I think he relishes that. It’s a big opportunity for him to impose himself physically.”

Smiling, the wing adds:

Unfortunately I was partnered with Henshaw and McCloskey in the gym the other day, so I know exactly how physical they are – I faked a shoulder injury to get out of it actually.”

“There’s a couple of guys you know you’ll get going forward. When you’re playing for Ulster, it’s Nick (Williams) and Stu. You get on their shoulder and you hope for an offload.

“With Ireland it’s a bit more complicated, a bit more physical and tight and not as predictable as it might be. You have to work a little harder, be a bit more clever to anticipate things a bit better, communicate.”

Stuart McCloskey

“He’s got a level of intensity about him, but he’s very relaxed. He’s confident with what he can provide on the pitch, but he’s also aware of things he needs to work on. I think that’s the perfect balance.”

That confidence equilibrium has been a major factor in McCloskey’s late rise to the top of the game. Until a growth spurt in his mid teens he was a scrum-half, 18 months ago he hadn’t played in a professional rugby match and the more he is exposed to the elite level of the game, the more the less natural attributes like organisation and communication are improving.

“He’s got better, you can’t be down here and not learn a lot,” adds Trimble.

“Some of us are old hands and I’m still learning a lot every day in training. It’s a great environment, just to enhance what you have and work on what you don’t have.

Stuart McCloskey Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“He’s not the full package, not yet. He’s working on his passing game, his defence. He’ll be under pressure in defence this weekend.”

Nothing to worry about though, eh Joe?

“When there’s something new it’s a very human reaction to be apprehensive, but also we all get excited about something new.

“I am excited to see what does get delivered, particularly from the two lads.”

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Sean Farrell

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