Robbie Henshaw ready for battle with Welsh heavyweights
Ireland centre aims to thrive against the physicality of Jamie Roberts and company
Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw is tackled by Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts of Wales during last year’s Six Nations match. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
We keep asking the Irish players rhetorical questions. The Welsh are a monstrous size though, are they not?
Today it is Robbie Henshaw. We ask and answer the question knowing the conspicuous proportions of the opposition is no longer the difference between the Irish team winning or losing matches.
It is, however, a talking point. England will predictably arrive all beefy and bulldog, Wales this week with their outsized centres full of kilos and centimetres. A battalion of battering rams across their backline with Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw and Johnny Sexton all expected to stand tall.
Timing, technique, positioning and team work, it can take 40 kilos off any running back and with Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams and maybe Jamie Roberts, Wales will not shrink from the physical. But nor will Ireland.
Friday in the Millennium Stadium and a boozy night-time crowd is sure to trigger the mother of all beginnings to a Six Nations match. But you get a sense from Henshaw that while size is a consideration and matters, it is not all.
The Welsh consider their 10-12-13 axis to have an edge over everyone else, their physicality tougher than England or France. Maybe that should be a concern.
“Not necessarily,” says Henshaw. “Physicality-wise I think Wales are up there with the sheer size in their backs, probably one of the biggest backlines in the championship. So physicality-wise it is going to be a tricky test for us and a challenge but we’ve played these guys a lot of times and we know what they’re about.
“We really need to be solid in our hits in defence and hold onto them because they’re big strong guys, the likes of Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams, if they get a half shoulder they’ll get up and they’ll go again. So we just need to be really locked on in defence and stay connected around 10, 12, 13 and we can control that.
“I know Jamie Roberts, played him a lot of times, he’s a big, prominent ball carrier and he’s good in defence. To have a player like him on the bench is obviously a plus for Wales and when he does come on he’ll be carrying a lot of ball. Towards the latter end of the game we need to be nailed on.”
There are some parallels with the game two years ago. It was the second last match of the championship and it was the same referee officiating, England’s Wayne Barnes and against the same opposition. That day Barnes’ emphasis was on rolling away.
It took Ireland too long to work out that was a growing problem. They were staring at a scoreboard that had them 12-0 down before scratching their way back into the match.
“We do have a little bit of a look at the ref closer to the game but all in all we have a look at ourselves,” says Henshaw in a concealed expression of confidence. Like Eamon De Valera if they wish to know what is best for Ireland the players look into their own hearts. Not a bad place to start.
“We pride ourselves on our discipline and we try to keep penalty count as low as possible. To give away four soft penalties and give them a head start (in 2015) was disappointing so we’ll obviously look to fix that.”
With an 8.05pm kickoff, the week has unfolded more like a European Cup week than the regular Six Nations. But Henshaw dismisses the tweaked week as peripheral, the management re-jig not so alien to the players. They have the incentive of a possible winner takes all over St Patrick’s weekend against England, a dream finale for both sides.
“We know the pressure is on us now, it is massive, but hopefully we will thrive. Looking forward to going out there and hopefully coming into Paddy’s weekend being in with a shot at it,” he says.
It was also Paul O’Connell’s 100th cap in 2015 as Ireland went on to fall short 23-16 in the face of a powerful Welsh defence.
“In 2015 it was kind of a dog fight,” says Henshaw. “It’s going to be like a cauldron in there.”