Robbie Henshaw’s injury takes the gloss off Ireland’s Italy romp
The curse of the number 13 jersey continues as Joe Schmidt loses his defensive lynchpin
The injury legacy from Ireland’s 56-19 victory over Italy at the Aviva stadium took the gloss off the occasion. Eight tries is a decent return – the place-kicking stats were exemplary first by Jonathan Sexton and then his replacement Joe Carbery – from the Irish dominance in terms of territory and possession. However injuries to Robbie Henshaw (shoulder) and Tadgh Furlong exacted a hefty penalty on the occasion of a facile victory against an overmatched Italian side.
There were aspects of Ireland’s display that improved appreciably from the victory over France in Paris, notably the effectiveness of the lineout and the central platform it provided in several tries. The counterbalance to the positivity, a smattering of ropey handling and passing and a little bit of disconnect in defence for Italy’s tries, albeit acknowledging the part the injuries played in that.
ROBBIE HENSHAW’S INJURY A CRUEL BLOW
Robbie Henshaw’s value to Ireland is enormous and to lose him for the remainder of the Six Nations Championship would be a massive blow. He’s been outstanding this season whether wearing the number 12 or 13 jersey, for Leinster and Ireland, and the maturity, focus and organisation he brings - particularly in defending that outside midfield channel - is incalculable.
Well actually it’s not. When Henshaw was forced off with what appeared to be a dislocated shoulder, the ensuing reshuffle left Ireland a little more vulnerable. Where once there was speed, coordination and communication in defence it was replaced after his departure by a more passive, hesitant green line and that was reflected in a number of Italy’s three tries.
Defending in that area requires composure, excellent game appreciation, clarity of thought and action and an ability to direct others. He offered a classis illustration with his second try, reading Italy’s intentions as they attacked out wide, to step in and intercept Italian number eight Sergio Parisse’s pass to Tommaso Allan, and then race 50-metres to touch down; it was to prove a bittersweet moment for the player and country, as he suffered his potentially tournament ending injury in the grounding.
Despite being a relative novice at Test level at outside centre Henshaw has emphatically proved that he is Ireland’s best defender in that channel – even with a full complement personnel wise from which to select – and that he possesses the leadership skills to organise those around him.
His excellent distribution occasionally gets overlooked because of his strength and power. Henshaw’s passing is generally excellent while he also cuts good lines in coming onto the ball as evidenced in his first try.
That is only the third match that Jonathan Sexton, Bundee Aki and Henshaw have played as Ireland’s 10-12-13 axis and while the Leinster centre has been on the pitch in those games the team has conceded one try against the combined might of South Africa, France and Italy.
UNLUCKY JERSEY 13
Ireland’s 24th man for the Italian match was Chris Farrell, the player most likely to deputise for Henshaw when Wales come to Dublin on Saturday fortnight, reprising a role he fulfilled in Ireland’s final November Test match, a 28-19 victory over Argentina, in winning his second of two caps.
In something of a coincidence he replaced an injured Henshaw for the game against the Pumas, the Munster centre producing a brilliant performance for an hour before being forced off with a knee injury that kept him sidelined throughout December.
Farrell’s great hands facilitated Jacob Stockdale’s first try and he also put in some thumping tackles. Argentina only scored one try – it came from a grubber kick in behind – while Sexton, Aki and Farrell were in harness, prior to the latter’s departure, a heartening statistic facing into matches against Wales, Scotland and England.
Leinster centre and hitherto first choice Ireland 13 Garry Ringrose is still a little bit away from returning to the Test arena – the Scottish and English games look a realistic proposal – and he will need matches with Leinster to sharpen his game.
The number 13 has certainly been unlucky for those who wear it when considering the injury issues suffered by Luke Marshall (Ulster), Ringrose, Farrell and Henshaw at club and national level this season.
Rob Kearney will have a big role to play should Farrell indeed be chosen at 13; the fullback’s experience and communication skills in defence will be important on the day.
LINEOUT BACK AS AN ATTACKING FULCRUM
There was nothing wrong with the lineout figures in Paris, winning 13 from 14, but it slightly camouflaged the fact that what is normally a central tenet of Ireland’s attacking playbook was largely blunted by France.
Its effectiveness was restored against Italy offering a direct provision for tries by Henshaw, Aki and captain Rory Best and indirectly for Jacob Stockdale’s first score. But is also gave Ireland momentum as demonstrated in several mauls that ate up the metres, forced the Italians to try and stop it illegally and sucked in defenders providing space in the backline for the home side to exploit; they did so effectively.
The Irish lineout even borrowed a Munster variation when Best hit Conor Murray in what should have been a front peel but the scrumhalf’s delivery wasn’t as silky smooth as his passing and the opportunity went abegging, albeit that Ireland ended up with the penalty.
DIFFERENT STYLE ADDING VALUE TO THE COLLECTIVE
It was interesting to appreciate the different styles of Jack Conan and CJ Stander as they each took the number eight duties for half a game. The challenge for Conan has been to provide an option in the lineout (he did) and also work harder in defence to make his tackles (he led the individual tackle count for Ireland in the first half with six), so that these would complement his ball carrying skills.
He demonstrated a clever running line to preserve the space on the outside and lovely hands for Murray’s try. Stander was more direct in his carrying getting through his usual massive workload on both sides of the ball. The two players gave Ireland coach Joe Schmidt a little bit to think about ahead of the Wales game.
LAPSES IN DEFENCE
Defence coach Andy Farrell will be disappointed at the nature of the tries that Ireland conceded, a lack of communication and perhaps hustle from Dan Leavy and Jacob Stockdale and a soft chase on Joey Carbery’s long kick and debutant Jordan Larmour caught on his heels and stationary for Italy’s second.
Ireland had sufficient numbers to defend the Matteo Minozzi’s try but misread the play and didn’t bring enough energy to the line speed that would have at least tested Italy’s handling. The nature of the Irish defence for three quarters of the game, structure, discipline and aggression was excellent but the drop off in the final quarter will rankle.