Iain Henderson on Scotland: ‘If you give them an inch they will walk over you’

Ulster secondrow knows route to success starts with overpowering Scots up front

Jacob Stockdale and Iain Henderson during an Ireland training session at Carton House on Thursday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Jacob Stockdale and Iain Henderson during an Ireland training session at Carton House on Thursday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Since the turn of the millennium the Ireland-Scotland rivalry has had a distinctly green hue to it, with the Scots managing just four wins from the last 27 meetings between the sides.

This includes a current run of five consecutive Irish victories. But heading into Sunday’s Six Nations clash at Murrayfield (3pm), the two teams look as well matched as ever.

Under Gregor Townsend Scotland are flourishing. They have beaten England at Twickenham for the first time since 1983 and now they have a green monkey to lift off their back.

Ireland, meanwhile, have struggled to take off under Andy Farrell, but they will be aware of the invaluable momentum a win at Murrayfield could provide this weekend.

Recent battles between the sides have seen Ireland strangle the Scots up front, using their superior power game to grind down the Scottish pack.

And Iain Henderson – often at the heart of these forward efforts – has suggested this is borne out of the respect Ireland have for an increasingly abrasive Scotland cohort.

Speaking ahead of Sunday’s trip to Edinburgh, he said: “The reason it’s appeared to look like that in previous games is because we know how dangerous a pack Scotland have – they can be incredibly difficult to play against when they get front-foot ball, when they’re dominating collisions.

“So probably the reason in games it looks like we’re really dominating them, or we have dominated them in the past, is because we know that if you give them an inch they will walk over you.”

But while Scotland’s forwards and the likes of Jamie Ritchie will present Ireland with a serious challenge both physically and over the ball, Henderson is equally wary of their generational backline.

“They have a massive counterattack threat. They have substantial breakdown threats as well. Those are two of the areas we have looked at,” he said.

“We have looked at making sure when we do turn over the ball – guys like Finn Russell and Hogg are so good – we need to make sure that we are shutting those guys down early, make sure they don’t get a lifeline into the game through that.

“They have guys who can poach the whole way through their pack, and backline too, so our turnover defence will be huge for us.”

While Ireland were in action against Italy on February 27th Scotland have had a much longer break, after their third-round clash with France was postponed due to a Covid-19 outbreak in the French camp.

When the sides line out on Sunday, it will be 29 days since the Scots last laced up a pair of boots. So, does Henderson think the extra time off will stand to Townsend’s men – or could they be a bit rusty?

“It’s difficult to weigh up those two arguments because I’ve been in that scenario before where we haven’t played in a number of weeks and you feel very fresh going into it. But then sometimes in the back of your mind, it crawls in, ‘Is my conditioning up to standard here?’

“However, I feel we’re in a good position personally. In the shoes I’m sitting in, I’d have preferred to have played two weeks ago and I’m glad that we did.”

One of Henderson’s hallmarks as a secondrow – whether in green or in the white of Ulster – is his leadership. He captained Ireland in the narrow defeat to France and he believes more players are displaying similar qualities under Farrell’s guidance.

“What Faz has done is he’s asked guys to be more vocal. He wants people to talk more,” he said. “He’s really nurtured that environment for that to happen.

“Maybe before guys mightn’t have pitched up and given their insights but in such an intense environment – and everyone in this environment is so skilled at what they do – we need to be feeding off each other.

“So it’s great to see the management creating this environment where we can do that and I think Andy Farrell has done an excellent job with that.”

Henderson’s fellow Ulsterman, Jacob Stockdale, has returned to the international fold this week. Injuries have seen the winger’s career stall slightly after a barnstorming start, but Henderson has backed him to kick on again.

He said: “Jacob’s slipped back in there and he’s been really good all week, trained well and I feel he’s going well and he’s adding to the environment down here.”

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