Robbie Henshaw's 50th cap for Ireland against Italy at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome offered a continuation of the excellent form that he has demonstrated in the Six Nations Championship. Although Ireland suffered defeats to Wales and France the 27-year-old Leinster centre has maintained a consistently high level of performance in the tournament to date.
He set that tone in the opening game against the Welsh, displaying a voracious appetite matched by the quality of his rugby, both in attack and defence. When Ireland went a man down, he shouldered a greater workload in getting his team across the gainline. His instinct and vision, allied to footwork, were integral to the try scored by Tadhg Beirne.
The bruising physicality of the contest saw him depart briefly for a Head Injury Assessment (HIA), the team less effective in his absence; Ireland found greater traction in attack on his return.
Henshaw's performance against France was a little more prosaic, partially attributable to a more pronounced kicking strategy. He enjoyed a minor part in the one moment of attacking fluidity that culminated in a disallowed try for James Lowe.
The visitors offloading game in the first 50 minutes proved a troublesome conundrum for the Irish defence. Henshaw has missed three tackles in the Six Nations and two of them came in that match. One of Johnny Sexton's – he was absent that day – less celebrated attributes is his defending. He makes it easier for those inside and outside him in the line to focus exclusively on their tasks.
That creative axis of Sexton, Henshaw and Garry Ringrose – Ireland's number 13 had an excellent game in Rome – will have a significant impact on how Ireland fare in their last two Six Nations matches against Scotland and England. There were one or two instances where their interplay offered a little more disguise and nuance. Sexton doesn't always have to be the focal point in attack.
An example can be found in Ringrose’s try. Sexton is in situ but scrumhalf Jamison Gibson-Park hits the centre with a flat, hard pass that gives Ringrose, an angle to force his way between the two Italian defenders. As Ireland’s attacking patterns are evolving in the tournament, it is instructive that the centre combination is responsible for injecting momentum and tempo.
In the three Six Nations matches according to the official statistics, Andy Farrell’s team has a cumulative total of 11 offloads with almost 50 per cent provided by centres Henshaw (two) and Ringrose (three). It would be useful if the pair could manage a run of matches without injury to one or both.
Prior to the opening game of the tournament against Wales, the last time they started a Test match as a midfield pair was the 2019 World Cup quarter-final defeat to New Zealand. There is evidence that both are adopting a more hands-on role as distributors and decision makers. It will broaden the avenues of attack and reduce the onus on Sexton to provide the creative spark.
Henshaw’s lines of running and footwork, his power in contact and ability to both get over the gainline and occupy multiple tacklers across the three matches is an asset that will appreciate in value if he can continue to enjoy the same influence against the Scots and English.
He brings and intelligence and integrity to the way that he defends of which there were several examples last weekend; a big tackle on Italian flanker Sebastian Negri forced a knock-on, his appreciation of danger allowed him to read and then swallow up a chip over the Irish defensive line, while on another occasion his aerial prowess pre-empted a mistake from Italian fullback Jacopo Trulla.
There is little doubt that part of the reason for Henshaw’s excellent form is the pressure coming from his former midfield buddy at Connacht, Bundee Aki. The Leinster centre knows that he can’t afford to let those performance markers dip. There is genuine competition for the 12 jersey, a state of affairs Farrell would no doubt like to see replicated across the entire playing group.
It was not so long ago that Aki was at inside centre for Ireland’s rescheduled 2020 Six Nations matches against Italy and France and again for the Autumn Nations Cup matches against England and Scotland; in the Scottish game he was joined by Henshaw in the centre.
In highlighting Ireland’s standout performer to date in this Six Nations, Henshaw would be in the running – he’s been in the tournament’s team of the week in French and British papers more than once – and the immediate challenge is to maintain those performance levels.