Henshaw and Aki set for titanic midfield battle against Fickou and Vakatawa

The Leinster man was sharp off the bench against Italy last weekend.

AS FIRST TOUCHES after coming off the bench go, a 25-metre skip pass to set up your team-mate for his first Test try isn’t a bad effort.

Hugo Keenan still had to deliver a sharp finish but Robbie Henshaw was able to make an immediate impact for Ireland after replacing the unfortunate Garry Ringrose in Saturday’s win over Italy.

“It was kinda off the cuff,” says Henshaw in talking us through how the play unfolded.

“Just saw that the maul started to peel infield towards the middle of the pitch. Johnny [Sexton] and our blind wing [Andrew Conway] went the other side so that opened up more space on the left and I just called it to Bundee [Aki] to throw it to me. I saw the space over the top.

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“The maul peeling infield helped, it opened up the two-sided attack and allowed me to recognise a bit of space on the edge.

“Thankfully, Hugo got over. He stepped off his left and fought over well, so it was a good first touch to get into the game. Delighted for Hugo to get his first try.”

Henshaw’s assist was a reminder of the skillset he can bring to the party, while he had several other impressive moments in attack as Ireland played with width at times.

Henshaw’s dummy, dart, and offload to Keenan down the left-hand side in the second half was part of a flowing passage of attack that ended with Sexton dotting down for what was perhaps the best Irish try of the lot last weekend.

“There were some nice touches there,” says Henshaw of the Irish attack. “We had a look at how we did and there were definitely a few more opportunities we could have exploited, a bit more space at times.

“But it was definitely all positive. We moved them around a bit and it definitely opened up a bit more in the second half as bodies got tired. We got more space and it was great to get the ball to the likes of Jacob [Stockdale], Andrew, and Hugo. Myself and Bundee were trying to get it out to them quickly.”

With Ireland now preparing for their visit to Paris on the final day of the Six Nations on Saturday, their title hopes still alive, it looks likely that Henshaw will replace Ringrose – whose autumn Test rugby is over – in the number 13 shirt.

If Henshaw does start, he will be part of a tried-and-tested partnership with the in-form Aki, with whom he has played many times for Connacht and Ireland.

“I know what he’s about and how he operates,” says Henshaw. “Similar to when I’m playing with Garry as well, I know how he works.

irelands-robbie-henshaw Henshaw was sharp off the bench for Ireland against Italy. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“The energy Bundee brings is huge and that really gets us going as a collective. I think he’s really settled in in the last couple of years and he’s really at home now and he’s getting more and more comfortable in the shirt.

“He’s just constantly driving us on and bringing that energy which is what is needed when there’s an empty stadium.”

Aki and Henshaw went well as a pairing for the 2018 visit to the Stade de France in the game that kick-started Ireland’s Grand Slam run that year, although they would be facing a very different French centre duo if selected together this time around.

Gaël Fickou, now France’s defensive captain, and the sensational Virimi Vakatawa are major threats, with the Racing 92 man in particularly stunning form over the past year or so.

They proved a major handful once again for Wales last weekend as les Bleus scored five tries in a warm-up victory in Paris, so Henshaw knows exactly how busy Ireland will be.

“They’re two world-class players. I’ve played Fickou a handful of times now and I think I’ve played Vakatawa twice. Their running threats alone, their offloading skills and both of their footwork is top-class.

“We need a rock-solid performance in D and the key to stopping them is probably shutting down their space early if we can and not allowing them time and space on the ball because that’s probably when they’re at their most dangerous.

“Not only are they good ball-carriers and running threats but they’re also really good distributors and are able to get the ball to space.” 
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