Henshaw and Ringrose the more tested midfield combo against All Blacks

The All Blacks have plenty of experience but some relatively new combinations.

COMBINATIONS AND COHESION are often at the forefront of Test coaches’ minds when it comes to selecting their teams.

Joe Schmidt indicated that those factors, along with experience, were central when he was picking his Ireland team to face the All Blacks.

Take, for example, the fact that Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray are starting together in the halfbacks for a new record 56th time, taking them clear of Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara’s longstanding mark of 55.

conor-murray-and-jonathan-sexton Sexton and Murray know each other's games inside out. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Cian Healy, Rory Best, and Tadhg Furlong start together in the front row for the 17th time, providing another combination that Schmidt will expect to prove valuable in Tokyo Stadium on Saturday.

There are exceptions to the rule in Schmidt’s XV but largely this is a very settled team that one could probably have predicted several months ago.

The All Blacks have their own tried-and-trusted combinations, with locks Brodie Retallick and Samuel Whitelock getting their 53rd start alongside each other, leaving them short only of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha’s 60 in Test rugby.

It’s worth underlining that the Kiwis have more Test experience in their matchday 23 with 1,075 caps compared to Ireland’s total of 1,058.

But elsewhere in the team, there is much less familiarity for the All Blacks. Wing pair George Bridge and Sevu Reece are relative newcomers, boasting only seven and five caps, respectively.

The back row of Ardie Savea, Sam Cane and Kieran Read are vastly experienced and extremely talented but they will have only their fourth start as a combination against Ireland on Saturday.

The 10-15 combination of Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett is a fairly new concept too, with Barrett having been the starting out-half up until very recently. Scrum-half Aaron Smith is still learning the subtle details of Mo’unga’s play.

And then in midfield, where there was intense competition for the All Blacks, Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue will make just their third start alongside each other on Saturday. 

anton-lienert-brown-scores-a-try Lienert-Brown is a class act in midfield. Andrew Cornaga / INPHO Andrew Cornaga / INPHO / INPHO

Their first start was in the Rugby Championship defeat to Australia earlier this year, the second against Namibia in the pool stages of this World Cup. Now they team up against Ireland.

Again, these are two supremely gifted rugby players but Schmidt’s side might be eyeing up opportunities to test the cohesion and understanding between the midfielders.

Opposite them will be the all-Leinster 10-12-13 combination of Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, whose provincial relationship will be of obvious benefit in the intense pressure of Saturday’s quarter-final.

To be fair, Henshaw and Ringrose have only started six Tests together for Ireland – which is a rather surprisingly low number – but there is certainly a greater level of in-build understanding based on being Leinster team-mates since 2016.

The Irish pair will be keen for their relationship to compensate for the absence of Bundee Aki, who has been a pivotal player under Joe Schmidt in recent seasons.

Henshaw says Ireland expected the All Blacks to pick Chiefs man Lienert-Brown and Crusader Goodhue together this weekend.

“They’ve gone with what we’d predicted,” said Henshaw. “Lienert-Brown is a good ball-player, and he’s dangerous through contact, really exceptionally strong, looks for offloads.

“So we’ll need to have our homework done, and shut down the space early on and just make sure that we can’t allow them time and space on the ball.”

robbie-henshaw-and-garry-ringrose Henshaw and Ringrose know each other well from Leinster. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

It is a little bit of a surprise that the Kiwis haven’t included the experience and rugby IQ of Ryan Crotty in their midfield, as he misses out altogether on the matchday 23 with Sonny Bill Williams offering potential impact off the bench.

“Like every team you pick, you look at the opposition and what you’re after and this midfield was no different,” said All Blacks boss Steve Hansen.

“In this case, Ryan has missed out. For this game, we felt the combination of Jack, Anton and Sonny was the one for us.

“We have selected a mixture of experience and our in-form talent. Albie [Lienert-Brown] has been with us for a while now, he’s played 40 Tests.

“He knows what it’s like to play as an All Black and how to prepare and he’s in really good form so it was a no-brainer to pick him.”

Clearly the All Blacks have done their homework for this game. Long gone are the days where Kiwi players couldn’t name an opposition player.

Asked about the possibility of Ireland selecting Henshaw and Ringrose a couple of hours before Schmidt confirmed his selection, Sonny Billy Williams underlined how impressed he has been with Chris Farrell.

“A big shout out to Bundee, he’s a close friend who probably won’t be in the best state of mind right now,” said Williams.

“But the young fell as well, I don’t know how young he is, is it Farrell? I watched some clips on him too and he’ll be pushing for a starting spot, so they’ve got a really strong midfield combo whichever way they go. We’ll have to be up for the challenge.”

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