Chris Farrell in pole position to claim Ireland midfield spot
Managing midfield permutations nothing new for coach Joe Schmidt in his 52-game reign
Conor Murray poses for photos with fans during Ireland’s training session at Buccaneers RFC in Atholone. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Like a bad dream, or witnessing a car crash, Joe Schmidt feared he could see Robbie Henshaw being injured before he grounded the ball and quietly implored him not to touch the ball down for his second try against Italy. But Schmidt was powerless to intervene, and, sure enough, Henshaw suffered a dislocated shoulder in the act of scoring.
Perhaps part of Schmidt is almost programmed to fear the worst when it comes to his midfielders. He inherited the famed Gordon D’Arcy-Brian O’Driscoll centre partnership for one final triumphant swansong, the pair playing their last six games together in Schmidt’s first season as Irish coach, 2013-14, culminating in O’Driscoll signing off by captaining Ireland to a 22-20 win in Paris and the Six Nations title.
The Henshaw-Jared Payne combination was Schmidt’s go-to pairing of choice thereafter but, alas, he has been unable to go to them that much. There were ever-presents in the 2015 title retention, and sporadically the following season, as well as the Chicago win over the All Blacks and the return meeting a fortnight later last season, but with Payne almost continually absent since then, never subsequently.
In all, the Henshaw-Payne combination has started 13 of Schmidt’s 52 matches in charge, with the D’Arcy-O’Driscoll combination still second on six. The new Leinster pairing of Henshaw and Garry Ringrose looked set for a long stint in harness after being ever-presents in last year’s Six Nations, but they remain the only five games they’ve started together.
Despite this, the Irish coach does not believe injuries necessarily come with the midfield terrain.
“Two of them were retirements really with Darce and Drico. In that first year that was part of the deal. I knew that Drico was going to finish and that he’d give it one more year for that last Six Nations, which was the fairytale that not too many players get.
“Then the next year we had Robbie and Jared and they locked the midfield up, and they did a great job for us in creating opportunities for us in that midfield.”
Injuries since then to Payne and particularly Ringrose have, he admitted, been acutely frustrating, but that Ringrose’s ankle injury “can happen to anyone in any position at any time unfortunately. So I don’t think it’s position specific. A lot of wingers are more likely to do that shoulder injury that Robbie did just because they dive in at corners and someone lands on top of them.”
“As he was going in to score that I had a very bad feeling,” Schmidt revealed yesterday after the Irish squad’s opening training session in Buccaneers RFC, “and I said in the box, as he was going in to score it, ‘don’t score Robbie’. We didn’t need the try, we need him, and it’s not very often a coach is saying that to a player quietly in a coaching box but it is what it is, and as I say, we will get really excited about the players we do have because we know how hard they are going to work on Saturday week.”
It scarcely seems credible that Schmidt has used 15 centres in his 52 matches, and 24 different midfield combinations. There have been 17 different one-off pairings and one of those, Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell, look like being permed together against Wales on Saturday week at the Aviva Stadium, having done so impressively in the win over Argentina last November.
Significantly also, Farrell was running with the front-liners for the last two days in Athlone, whereas Ringrose doesn’t look like returning for Leinster against the Scarlets this Saturday after six weeks out.
Schmidt admitted as much.
I do think Chris would have his nose in front because he’s been with us the whole time and Garry hasn’t. As much as Garry has had more Test match experience and was outstanding in Japan and the USA and was super for us previous to that, Chris has got the current game form with us.”
“He kind of found his feet a bit against Fiji, I thought he was really good against Argentina and I think he showed there’s a bit more to Chris Farrell than a bludgeon – nice soft skills and a tight pass, he’s got a good length in his pass. He’s actually got pretty good kicking skills and I thought his defensive acumen on the day against an Argentinian team with the likes of Tuculet coming into the back line, he closed the space down really well.”
The prognosis on the other lesser casualties from the Italian game, Iain Henderson and more surprisingly, Tadhg Furlong, is encouraging. Both players trained separately, and were confined to running, but Schmidt ventured that Henderson possibly could have trained fully were it not for the soft Dubarry Park pitch and that Furlong could conceivably be back to full training next Tuesday at Carton House. James Ryan watched on, but again Schmidt reckoned he should be training fully next week.
Apart from Farrell replacing Henshaw, the rest of last Saturday’s 23-man match-day squad trained in Athlone, save for Kieran Marmion and Sean Cronin. Perhaps significantly, Jordan Larmour was also released back to Leinster after training with the squad on Tuesday, whereas Fergus McFadden was called up for the two days, as were Niall Scannell and Jordi Murphy.
Wales are expected to be boosted by the return of Toby Faletau, Leigh Halfpenny and possibly Dan Biggar, and while noting Rob Howley had their attack “really humming” against Scotland and attacked well in poor conditions against England, Schmidt added: “They’ve a great defensive ethic. They are always very hard to break down. We would expect an incredibly resilient defence, certainly 13 guys on their feet, in your face, coming hard at you.”
Indeed, the work-rate of the Welsh forwards in Twickenham was such that their starting pack made 130 of their 182 tackles on the day, 46 by the front-rowers, 32 by their locks and 52 by their back-rowers. Such was their collective discipline, furthermore, that Wales only conceded two penalties in 80 minutes.