Henshaw ready to set the tone in a powerful Irish midfield

The Athlone man can thrive with greater freedom when played outside Aki.

Sean Farrell reports from Carton House

AS A POUNDING beat of dance music reverberated down the old floorboards of Carton House, you feared for the furniture if Robbie Henshaw were to take a Pavlovian response to the gym-like soundtrack.

Robbie Henshaw Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It just happened that the Leinster was speaking about Ireland’s physicality at the time too. Fortunately for the table, he stopped dead in his tracks until the speaker was turned down and he could take his game face off again.

The make-up of Ireland’s centres in the pre-Henshaw years meant that bullying opposite numbers across the back-line was never an option. But with the Athlone man likely to be partnered by Bundee Aki or the even more imposing Chris Farrell, there will be no shortage of midfield muscle for Joe Schmidt to put to work on Six Nations opening weekend.

Obviously, he’s too professional to admit it, but the prospect of partnering with Aki must be the most enticing option for Henshaw. Reared a 13 before cutting his teeth as a pro in the back-field, come Test level Henhaw’s carrying power on slow first phase ball became a useful weapon for Schmidt to install at number 12.

Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki pray after the game Henshaw and Aki share a moment after a Connacht match in 2016. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

With Aki, he can be set relatively free to do a different sort of damage to defences as an outside centre.

“There’s certainly more space to attack with,” Henshaw says.

You find yourself in a bit more space in second, third phase. Obviously defensively you’re one of the main cogs in the wheel, so you can make really important reads at 13. So there is a lot more ownership on you.”

Henshaw reports that competition for midfield places is raging, and he has run training lines with both Aki (who he partnered against South Africa) and Farrell (who benefited from Henshaw’s injury before the win over Argentina). The Leinster man expects to start opposite Clermont’s Remi Lamerat plus either La Rochelle’s Geoffrey Doumayrou or Racing’s Henry Chavancy. Whatever combination presented by Les Bleus, they’ll be tested.

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“We’ll go out there with our gameplan and look to execute what we’ve planned. We’ll be physical in midfield and we’ll look to find space in behind them. We’ll look to play smart and constantly keep them under pressure.

Robbie Henshaw passes the ball Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“We’ll see what France throw at us and we’ll hit them back. But we’ll be physical in midfield, yes.”

Setting down that early physical marker will be vital. This Ireland group know from bitter experience that starting slow has repercussions not only for the 80-minute match, but the seven-week Championship.

“When we looked at our start last year, we need to do better this year. We know how hard it was last year, starting out on a loss.

“We tried to claw it back in Scotland, but left ourselves with too much to do. We are well aware of what happened and we want to hit the ground running this year.

“That’s all that is our heads at the moment. We are all aware of what we need to do.”

Bang the drum.

Munster centre Arnold trains with Schmidt’s Ireland at Carton House

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Sean Farrell

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