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World Cup on Joe's mind as Henshaw preferred to Kearney at fullback

Kearney ‘ran out of time’ as his performance against Scarlets tipped the selection balance in Henshaw’s favour.

Ryan Bailey reports from the Aviva Stadium

MOVING ROBBIE HENSHAW back to his preferred fullback position has been part of Joe Schmidt’s overall plan for quite some time, and the Ireland head coach felt it was an option worth pursuing against England this weekend.

Henshaw has been named to start in the 15 jersey at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, his first appearance at international level in the backfield since his senior debut against USA in 2013.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt speaking to the media this afternoon. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Having spent the early part of his career playing fullback for Connacht, the 25-year-old has since exclusively lined out at centre for Ireland and Leinster, but will be running at fullback against Eddie Jones’ side. 

Henshaw trained in the position during Ireland’s warm-weather camp in Portugal last week, and again at Carton House this week, while Rob Kearney’s rusty showing against Scarlets tipped the balance in the Athlone native’s favour.

Speaking at this afternoon’s team announcement press conference, Schmidt revealed Ireland have been looking to use Henshaw at 15 for a while — he ran there in training during last summer’s Australia series — but for a number of reasons, the opportunity never presented itself.

Kearney, Schmidt says, is ‘coming up to speed’ but ultimately ran out of time to prove his match fitness for England, with the 32-year-old Leinster fullback omitted from the matchday 23 entirely. 

“Robbie trained last week and in November a little bit at fullback and he actually trained there in Australia as well,” Schmidt explained. “He has been an option for us for some time there.

Rob just ran out of time and we like the flexibility of Jordan [Larmour] and what he gives us off the bench. I thought he came on really well last season against England [at Twickenham], coming into 13 and having to play the last 35 minutes.

“It’s one of those things that we have seen as an option for quite some time so it’s probably not as much of a surprise to Robbie and the team as it might be to other people.”

Schmidt added that while the primary focus is on the visit of England to Dublin, he has one eye on the World Cup later this year, and the selection of Henshaw at fullback could be a long-term option.

When asked if he felt it was a risk to deploy Henshaw there for a game of this magnitude, the Kiwi insisted his overall lack of game time — he has played just 62 minutes since last October — is more of a concern. 

“He hasn’t actually played that much himself,” Schmidt continued. “We got to a situation where we had a few different options there and really we just felt the way he trained when we were away and this week, it was worth pursuing.

Robbie Henshaw and Conor Murray Henshaw has been running at fullback in training. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Maybe even as a longer-term option, with 31 guys going to a World Cup, you need guys who can be versatile so there is probably a little bit of that as well as Robbie being a good player and a recognised fullback anyway.

“You’ve always got one eye on different things, but you’ve got one focus and that is England. We think Robbie Henshaw is a good option to play against England and we think he will acquit himself really well there. Short-term focus but to offer us a hint in the long-term whether that’s something Robbie is comfortable or capable of doing.”

Schmidt is confident 36-time capped Henshaw will be ready for whatever England throw at him under the lights at the Aviva: “If they do [target him], I’m pretty sure Robbie has a pretty good response to that. Nobody in our backfield is left alone.”

One of the other main talking points to come out of Schmidt’s first team selection of this year’s Six Nations, are the options he has chosen on the bench, with Larmour retaining the number 23 jersey and Seán O’Brien held in reserve behind incumbent number seven Josh van der Flier.

It also seems there was more to Schmidt’s decision to leave both Kearney and Jack McGrath behind with Leinster last week when Ireland stepped up their preparations in the Algarve, given the loosehead prop is left out.

Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne, in excellent form for the southern province, came off the bench against Italy in November before starting Ireland’s last outing, against USA at the Aviva Stadium.

On O’Brien, Schmidt concluded: “Seán always comes close to making the teams when available. I think it’s just that he hasn’t been available for quite some time and we want him to be able to get a bit of a feel for the match, have a bit of a look at it first. And then get out there and make the difference he can.

“We know how robust he is out there, we know how much pressure he can put on the ball, we know how well he carries. We want him to bring all that. He’s incredibly game intelligent and having that in that last quarter will be really important to us.

“They’ve a great bench and we have a good bench and that final quarter will probably be where the game is decided.”

Originally published at 15.29

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Ryan Bailey

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