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Analysis: Robbie Henshaw dominates midfield to lead for Ireland

The 22-year-old’s exceptional performance last weekend bodes well before the Argentina clash.

THERE HAS ALWAYS been some sort of expectation that centres must make linebreaks to be considered genuine attacking weapons.

Robbie Henshaw Henshaw leaves Bastareaud in his wake. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy didn’t help matters with their exploits in the earlier stages of their careers of course, but the game has utterly changed. Clean linebreaks are an increasingly rare commodity in a sport where defences often rule.

That’s what makes the shredding of an opposition backline such a joy to see. It’s perhaps not the most important factor in picking good centres, but it definitely helps if your midfield can beat exposed defenders.

Robbie Henshaw had his big moment against France last weekend. It was no surprise to see the Connacht man bursting through – we’ve known of his class for some time now – but this was the 22-year-old stamping his authority all over a game at the very highest level.

Indeed, it felt like a landmark performance for Henshaw, and though he will identify areas where he can continue to grow, his display bodes well for Sunday’s clash with Argentina, who will be missing key midfielder Marcelo Bosch.

With Ireland still just 9-6 ahead in the 49th minute in Cardiff last weekend, a big play was needed from a big player. Up stepped Henshaw.

Henshaw Bust Source: World Rugby

Our focus here is the superb work of Henshaw, but it would be remiss not to mention the efforts of Ireland’s pack to get a huge shunt up on the tighthead side through Mike Ross.

Behind him, Iain Henderson and Sean O’Brien are working extremely hard, but it’s a pack effort from Greg Feek’s men to lay the platform for Henshaw’s stunning break.

It’s a simple play from Ireland’s backline that exploits a bad habit of the French midfield.

Basta Source: World Rugby

Above, we can see the disjoint in the midfield trio of Freddie Michalak, Mathieu Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana, with Bastareaud left just behind the other two. It’s something we spoke about before the Six Nations this year and it still hasn’t been eradicated from France’s defence.

Ian Madigan takes the ball at Michalak, removing the French out-half as a viable defender, while Keith Earls is showing out the back of Henshaw, therefore luring Fofana in his direction.

Henshaw is left directly one-on-one with a man he would have heard and read an awful lot about last week. Time to copper fasten his dominance over the French wrecking ball.

Step Source: World Rugby

As the ball arrives into Henshaw’s hands, he steps to the inside of Basta off his right foot, inviting the French centre to plant his feet. Bastareaud takes the bait and sits down, just as Henshaw powers back to the outside with a rapid left-foot explosion.

The step to Basta’s inside and the subsequent plant mean the Frenchman ends up attempting his tackle from two metres away from Henshaw.

Basta Plant Source: World Rugby

Basta is never going to win the tackle from that far away. He needs to fight to keep his feet moving in this instance, chopping towards Henshaw to make the tackle on his own terms, rather than allowing Henshaw to dictate it.

As soon as he plants, it’s game over. What’s even more impressive here is that Henshaw finds the time mid-step to shift the ball into his right arm, keeping the ball away from Basta and freeing his left hand for a fend if required.

Transfer Source: World Rugby

With his athletic burst of pace – Henshaw gets a high lift of his left knee on his first stride post-step to accelerate and almost hitch out of the tackle attempt – the Ireland inside centre is clear in the blink of an eye.

Beating a man one-on-one in this manner is exhilarating for any player and it’s so easy to make a poor decision once into the open field, but Henshaw calms himself and then fires an overhead basketball-style offload to Tommy Bowe wide on the right as Fofana scrags him from behind.

Job done for Henshaw? Not at all. After Rob Kearney carries from Bowe’s short pass near the touchline, Henshaw has his hand up for a second carry.

Henshaw Carry 2 Source: World Rugby

This is pure leadership from Henshaw. Carrying from a ruck off the touchline isn’t really his role, and Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Iain Henderson are all arriving in behind him.

But Henshaw is desperate for another touch, backing himself to bust over the gainline again. He puts his hand up and demands the ball when the easier thing is to fade behind and let the pod of forwards hit it up.

The fact that he follows through on the act of leadership by punching over the gainline says it all. Conor Murray’s pass on the next phase is knocked-on by Noa Nakaitaci and from the subsequent scrum Ireland build to Kearney’s try.

Henshaw’s hand – and his exceptional footwork – was all over the score.

From the opening minutes of this game, the Connacht centre was instrumental for Ireland. With something as basic as a defensive carry in the fifth minute, Henshaw stood out.

Defensive Carry, Fight Source: World Rugby

Ireland use Henshaw as the carrier from set-piece frequently, largely because he does such a fine job. Here, he picks out Michalak to get over the gainline but then the arrival of Bastareaud in underneath the ball from Henshaw’s left poses a threat.

It has the early hallmarks of a choke tackle turnover, but watch the absolute fight of Henshaw to get to ground. This was typical of his and Ireland’s aggression and accuracy all evening in Cardiff.

The actions of Bowe are important here too, as he targets Bastareaud beyond the ball, discouraging the France centre from his attempt to choke.

Henshaw dominated the French midfield in this game, ruling over Michalak, Fofana and, particularly, Bastareaud. Word from France is that the Toulon centre will be dropped for their quarter-final against New Zealand, and the bullying from Henshaw is one major reason.

First Tackle Basta Source: World Rugby

Above we see Henshaw’s first defensive engagement with Bastareaud, one where the Irishman is the clear winner. There are some similarities to Henshaw’s break here, although it’s far poorer possession that Bastareaud has to work with.

The Toulon man looks to sit Henshaw down with a step to his inside shoulder off the right foot, and we can see that Henshaw does briefly react in that manner.

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Sit Source: World Rugby

A poor defender would attempt his tackle from the weak position Henshaw is in above, sat on his heels with Bastareaud stepping back off his left foot to the defender’s outside shoulder.

Instead, Henshaw gets his feet moving in the blink of an eye. He’s ceded forward momentum, yes, but he has demanded his feet to get moving again and allow him to engage the tackle on more favourable terms.

Bastareaud does well to transfer the ball to his right arm and get a fend up towards Henshaw, but again the Irishman’s detail is exceptional.

Fend Source: World Rugby

Henshaw uses his right hand to slap down Bastareaud’s fend attempt, getting his left in under the Frenchman’s shoulders and then wrapping his right around the body too. There’s an important intervention from Keith Earls – who was superb in defence for Ireland on Sunday – as the Munster man fires his right shoulder onto Basta.

At this stage, Henshaw has the contact under control thanks to his power and holds Bastareaud up. O’Brien arrives in to punch the ball loose as Basta looks for an offload and Ireland are unlucky not to gather.

There was a far more important defensive contribution from Henshaw on the stroke of half time in this game, one that utterly underlined his growing status as a leader for Ireland.

Henshaw TO Source: World Rugby

9-6 ahead after an attritional half, with Paul O’Connell lying in agony near the halfway line, and France after nine phases of bludgeoning attack. Ireland needed a big defensive play. Big players step up in those moments.

Henshaw isn’t particularly well known for his jackaling, but he pounced over this opportunity in a flash, easily beating Michalak in the shoulder battle. It’s worth pointing out Earls’ role here, with the low tackle on Damien Chouly. Schmidt will have been pleased to see his midfield duo working well in tandem again.

Due to his ball-carrying role for Ireland, Henshaw can sometimes be portrayed simply as a big, powerful beast of a young man.

That image belies the good skill level – and footwork – Henshaw possesses, however, and it was good to see some classy handling touches from him on Sunday.

Hands on Bowe Source: World Rugby

The deft inside pass to Bowe for the first-half break that seemed destined to end in a try was one strong example. Henshaw’s pass to the right wing is short, but it’s superbly timed under pressure.

Ireland play off excellent lineout ball from Peter O’Mahony – that may be badly missed on Sunday – and run a simple, effective strike move that fully exploits the defensive sloppiness of Philippe Saint-André’s side.

Bowe Break Source: World Rugby

This time, it’s Michalak who leaves his teammates exposed. Poor defenders will often rush up ahead of the defensive line in an attempt to prevent ball carriers from being able to build up too much momentum.

That’s a sensible tactic if everyone does it together of course, but if you’re going to shoot up on your own you have to make a big spot tackle or prevent the pass from being shipped on. Otherwise, you’re leaving your buddies out to dry.

Michalak gets up hard, but then he’s forced to make a decision as O’Brien runs a hard line outside first receiver Madigan. Michalak engages.

Freddie Source: World Rugby

Though the France out-half is on O’Brien’s outside and doesn’t actually drop into a tackle, the fact that he turns his shoulders in on the Ireland openside is enough.

With the ball heading down the tunnel in front of Jamie Heaslip – who shows nice animation with his hands up for the ball – and behind O’Brien to Henshaw, there’s now a hole on Michalak’s outside.

Bastareaud steps in onto Henshaw to make the tackle, but Bowe shows on Henshaw’s inside at the perfect moment to accept the simple pass as the Ireland 12 is hit by Basta.

Bowe Break .2 Source: World Rugby

It’s perfectly executed from Ireland to take advantage of more sloppy French defence and it should result in at least five points.

Though Henshaw was predominantly a carrying weapon for Ireland – he had 17 carries in total – it was encouraging to see his distribution skills used on a handful of other occasions, as for the inside pass to Peter O’Mahony below.

Inside Pass POM Source: World Rugby

The small details in Henshaw’s performances continue to get better, as we saw in the carrying and tackling examples earlier in this piece. His confidence at Test level will only grow after this performance and it’s worth remembering that he still has only 14 caps.

Below, we see the former Marist College man offering up excellent presentation of the ball even after he is met by a thumping Thierry Dusautoir hit.

Smashed, presentation Source: World Rugby

Gathering in chip kicks, working hard around the corner in defence, the turnover, seven big tackles, decoy running and communication, it was a complete performance from Henshaw in what was possibly the biggest game of his career so far.

He and his coaches will certainly identify areas where Henshaw can be even better this weekend against Argentina and there will be no complacency or contentment from the Connacht man.

He had one good clearing kick for Ireland from the 22 on Sunday, but it was frustrating for him to see his latest grubber attempt ricochet off a defender.

Grubber Again? Source: World Rugby

Henshaw had a similar grubber attempt in the Italy game, while there were further efforts of the same variety from Jared Payne in the preceding fixture against Romania.

Clearly it makes sense for Ireland’s midfielders to have as many options as possible in attack – Earls had one lovely chip against the France that he almost regathered – but the execution has to be better.

As with other recent examples, Henshaw gets very close to the defender before kicking the ball and it’s one area where he will continue to work hard to improve.

The rest of his performance was exceptional. All the talk in the build-up to Sunday’s contest was of the battering ram Bastareaud and his nimble-footed partner Fofana.

Henshaw combined the brutal physicality, dancing footwork, deft handling and detail into one impressive performance to dominate the midfield. On a day when Ireland lost several of their key leaders, the 22-year-old demanded responsibility and followed through.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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