Liam Toland: Henderson’s natural ability can add real value
Ulster man’s powerful try was not only thing he did well against Wales
Justin Tipuric is tackled by Ireland’s Iain Henderson on Saturday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Wales, like Ireland, had many on their first run out but had a clear game plan to combat their opponents. Tempo is an interesting aspect to the performance; it appeared that Wales were more comfortable dictating the pace and field position, and certainly they got the penalty rewards.
However, Wales brought a strong kicking game, with scrumhalf Rhys Webb launching time after time, ably supported by his outhalf Dan Biggar. Clearly they had a tactic based around testing the Kearney brothers in the air. But as the game evolved with Wales edging slightly ahead, Ireland looked uncomfortable in their efforts to open the Welsh defence.
Webb launched yet another bomb to Rob Kearney on 19:10. Ireland turned over to openside Justin Tipuric and Wales got running to Scott Williams out in midfield. As Williams carried the ball in two hands, the fractured Irish defence, suffering from the turnover, were in two minds. Instinct would suggest that Williams would keep the flow going wide but he found his inside centre Jamie Roberts, who targeted a pocket of empty space.
Having made the crucial yardage, Roberts offloaded to Biggar, again on his inside, before Biggar popped outwards to fullback Leigh Halfpenny. Ten phases of Welsh play brought the inevitable penalty right on the Irish line. Twelve-man Welsh lineout mauls brought the try.
Although their lineout maul provided the try, it was Williams, in holding in both hands before passing back inside, that prevented the scrambling Irish defence from drifting and pushing the Welsh attack into touch. Williams made a great read and his team-mates playing their first game were equally switched on, combining a kicking game with width and a powerful maul.
Ireland’s version of the above is the Johnny Sexton wraparound play. It opened brilliantly from Ireland’s exit strategy off the opening kick-off, putting Rob Kearney into space.
However, the Welsh are well aware of this play and it was very interesting to observe how Jamie Roberts combated it. He’s a powerful defender but, facing the wraparound, he slowed a tad getting his hips and outside arm around the pivot player. Yes, he’s tackling, but only just, as he trades a solid hit for getting that outside hand on the pass to Sexton as he wraps. This style will not be wasted on our pool opposition.
Like any fixture, and especially warm-up matches, there were many positive facets. The frontrow, with its new formation, once again put Wales under huge pressure at scrum time, which must be a concern for Warren Gatland, especially having dropped Adam Jones.
Put simply, when Conor Murray addressed the tunnel he was presented with a solid platform. Conversely, Webb faced a Welsh scrum that was all over the place. Yes, this brought referee Craig Joubert’s interpretation to the fore and Ireland conceded penalties but Gatland should be more worried.
It appeared that Ireland’s scrum pivoted around Jack McGrath, the other seven crabbing clockwise, if you like, on the Welsh put in. Joubert penalised this but that a new Irish frontrow combination could over- power and dictate the Welsh in this fashion was a real bonus. The way Ian Henderson scrummaged behind McGrath will give the Irish management real selection headaches. Welsh openside Justin Tipuric was the deserved man of the match but Henderson was phenomenal, with his work rate and scrummaging a nice addition.
A key question remains: is Henderson an opening 60-minute starter or a closing 20-minute impact sub? In essence, he can be both but Devin Toner has become a massive player for Ireland. Obviously Toner’s lineout would positively impact the 20 per cent losses against Wales on Saturday.
Yes, everyone will have seen Henderson’s powerful try but the little things are very impressive. Like Malcolm O’Kelly, he’s often the first forward leading the chasing line. And his work around the breakdown is very impressive.
As Wales built pressure on the Irish line, Henderson made a massive counter-ruck on 14 minutes 47 seconds when, sensing the danger, he smashed Alun-Wyn Jones off the ball in a powerful counter-ruck for Jordi Murphy to steal. Through the gate, perfect body position and great outcome. On 65:22, he plucked number eight Taulupe Faletau out of a ruck and threw him to the ground.
But it’s his footballing around the ball that adds real value. The line he picked for his try was no accident. He understood the environment he was in and sensed the weak Welsh shoulders. That was from a running start, but he’s equally powerful off a standing start.
It’s the confusing combination of his length, upper-body strength (hand off) and fast feet that make tackling him so hard. The picture presented to the defender is not like Paul O’Connell, who will run a very hard but direct line. Henderson moves laterally and forward simultaneously with a powerful arm to knock back the would-be defender. He then combines this with his footballing awareness, reading the defenders’ intentions and adding in an offload where possible.
Of course, he plays in the backrow too, which absolutely needs Seán O’Brien’s presence against the top teams. Tipuric is a fine player and especially quick over the ground but his inside centre Jamie Roberts gave Tipuric a front foot to run off. More next time. firstname.lastname@example.org