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Good start is half the work in Test rugby

Comebacks are rare in this game.

TÚS MAITH LEATH na hoibre, as the saying goes. And it’s a difficult truism to escape in international rugby.

You need only think of Ireland’s recent clashes with England to see the value of a strong start. Garry Ringrose touching a ball that had come down with snow on it on Grand Slam day, or Jonny May racing to the corner in the Aviva Stadium.

jonny-may-with-robbie-henshaw-and-conor-murray Henshaw leaps with Jonny May in last year's Six Nations clash. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

All six matches so far in the 2020 Six Nations have seen the eventual match-winners lead at both 20 minutes and the halfway point.

Though home advantage clearly plays a part in this Championship – England’s soggy 6-13 win in Edinburgh outlying as the sole away success – the value of a solid start was made clear through the latter stages of the World Cup too.

Poor Ireland’s demise in Japan was complete as the All Blacks were 15-0 to the good after 20 minutes of their quarter-final clash. And Joe Schmidt’s side were 22-0 down by the interval.

new-zealands-kieran-read-is-tackled-by-irelands-bundee-aki-and-josh-van-der-flier Kieran Read carrying New Zealand to a barnstorming start against Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

When it was New Zealand’s turn to be humbled a week later, the fall came at them fast – 7-0 down after 20 and 10-0 on halfway. No way back.

World champions South Africa may have relied on their ‘bomb squad’ to push them to a strong finish. But RG Snyman and the boys never had an actual emergency to defuse as the Springboks led by three points after the first quarter of both semi-final and final and sustained their push through half-time.

You get the point. Only once in the last 13 Tests (from this Six Nations back to the RWC knockouts) has a team trailed at half-time and managed to win.

That occasion can be chiefly attributed to Sébastien Vahaamahina’s big elbow connecting with Aaron Wainwright’s head before Wales eked out a 20-19 win over France having trailed 10-19 at half-time of the quarter final.

This is why we acclaim comebacks. They add excitement and the unexpected, a heart-stopping twist in a tale that appears well-signposted from the beginning.

“The fast start again is huge,” says Robbie Henshaw, whose work helped Ireland get out of the blocks clean against Scotland and Wales.

“You see it in a lot of games nowadays, that the team that does start well seems to have the upper hand.

“If you find yourself in that position where the other team starts well you have to reset and make sure you have that, kind of, calmness and don’t be too panicked and make sure you reset and go again.”

robbie-henshaw-and-nick-tompkins Henshaw on the run against Wales. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The centre adds: “It is down to the work you do in the week, in training, what you put yourself through and how well you are doing your work on and off the pitch.

“It all builds up to how you put it down on the weekend. I think the preparation is key to that.”

Preparation and talking a good, calm game is all well and good. But Henshaw touches on another key hurdle when discussing another subject.

The Athlone man is set to link up with Bundee Aki for their latest Test start together in midfield. Between their work on the international scene and their history together in Connacht, they clearly have a relationship that enables them to work in tandem. The strength of that partnership proves its worth when they are under the pump in the heat of gameday.

“A bit of everything, really,” Henshaw says when asked how he and Aki manage to communicate in the difficult-to-defend midfield channels.

When your heart rate is up to 180 or whatever it is in the game, and you’re out of breath, it’s hard to scream. So it’s a bit of being able to adapt by sight and by your action that you’ve trained on the field.”

That elevated heart-rate, the sense of panic at being driven back and shredding a Plan A make more than communication difficult, they make adaptation and calm thinking a vertical climb.

To grab another well-worn phrase, everyone has a plan until they got a smack in the mouth. And all through 2019 Ireland appeared to be nursing a sore jaw after England connected at the Aviva.

“It is hard to pin-point on one thing that went wrong,” Henshaw says, pondering his view from fullback as England carved the would-be world number one side up.

“Probably one key thing was our start in the game we probably let them get a quick start which gave them momentum…

“They got the first score so that was probably one thing but, again, it is hard to pinpoint on one certain thing that went wrong.”

One last cliche for the road? Ireland won’t win this Sunday’s match in the first 20 minutes at Twickenham, but they could well lose it.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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