Rugby World Cup: Henderson hits the ground running in Japan

Incoming Ulster captain’s secondrow partnership with James Ryan looks formidable

Ireland put aside their stuttering 2019 form with a clinical 27-3 victory over their main Pool A rivals Scotland to open their World Cup campaign in convincing style. Video: Reuters


The incoming Ulster captain deserved a few minutes of our time. Turns out everyone was forced to witness Iain Henderson’s rare burst into open country to spark the dismantling of a Scotland team unable to cope with Irish aggression.

Not six minutes was played when Henderson’s 20-metre rumble, bumping Stuart McInally and streaking clear of Grant Gilchrist, forced Stuart Hogg – the last Scot to ever mention winning the World Cup before a ball has been fumbled – to cling to his ankle as a wave of inspiration washed over both Irish players and raucous crowd.

“For five minutes after I wasn’t feeling great,” Henderson admitted. “When you see someone else doing that it gives a massive lift, it gets me excited. There was unbelievable support in the clear out and then James Ryan with the try.

“It’s not that we planned that but during the week there’s a lot of emphasis on line breaks and making sure we make the most of them.”

CJ Stander had a few bullocking runs and even Rory Best went on a one-metre ramble before putting Conor Murray into space.

But it was the early try, created by Henderson and finished by Ryan, that broke the Scottish dam.

The player to watch could continually be James Ryan. He caught Hogg’s kickoff and went about reproducing his usual herculean performance, topping both tackle and carry counts to once again put all the flankers to shame.

But this group know if they are to ever break Ireland’s World Cup ceiling others must rise up alongside the 23-year-old. So, before this muggy Yokohama evening became a drenched night, Henderson rediscovered the rampaging form last seen on the midweek Lions team in 2017.

The 27-year-old is at the peak of his considerable powers. More than we even knew, the team depends upon him in Japan.

“Hendy runs the lineout,” Ryan explained afterwards. “Ultimately, he decides where the ball goes but between Pete and myself and Hendy we share the responsibility a small bit. If I can see space up the line I can feed that back into him, and Peter likewise, it is very much a collective responsibility there.”

Such collective responsibility narrows as Peter O’Mahony is not allowed train Tuesday and possibly Thursday after failing a HIA. That makes him highly unlikely to face Japan on Saturday.

“Traditionally the lineout’s been a real strength for us,” said Ryan, ever the historian, harking back to the days of O’Connell and O’Kelly.

“Obviously there were a couple of games in the summer when it didn’t go well for us and we weren’t where we needed to be. I think today was a good platform. More time we spend together hopefully the better it will get.

Locking pair

“There is no better feeling than when we get a good drive going and get over the line.”

The light heavyweight pack – Joe Schmidt’s description of them when talking about heavyweights South Africa and New Zealand – had beaming smiles after Rory Best picked out Henderson before the captain piloted the maul over for the second Ireland try.

For all the magnificence of a now established locking pair, both men leaped at the chance to laud their captain, especially considering Best shipped so much criticism in August from former teammates as much as the usual media.

“In World Cups, when you’ve a few injuries and not that many subs left, it’s not ideal,” said Henderson about the odd sight of a 37-year-old playing all 80 minutes.

Stranger still, reserve hooker Niall Scannell didn’t appear until replacing Josh van der Flier on 74 minutes.

“People want to show they can play 80 minutes. I think he [Best] had an absolutely sterling performance. He silenced a lot of his critics out there. You don’t understand what Rory Best brings to a squad and I think today people got a small insight into what he can add.”

Ryan’s glorious first full season as a Leinster and Ireland player yielded a European Cup and Grand Slam, but what followed in 2019 were seemingly unavoidable defeats to Saracens and a Saracens-packed England.

“It’s the top two inches,” Ryan believes were the cause of these losses as much as Maro Itoje or Billy Vunipola power surges.

“I think at times we haven’t been ready mentally. Today was a good test for us, particularly when the rain started belting down. I took one ball towards the end when they shifted up towards the front and the space was in the middle and in the pouring rain, ball like a bar of soap, Besty hits me at full extension. I was delighted with that.”

Under Henderson’s lineout calling there are initial signs that a world class set piece will exist when Springbok giants Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert and RG Snyman seek to dismantle them – like Itoje and George Kruis achieved last month – in what now appears an inevitable World Cup quarter-final.

“I think so,” Ryan agreed.

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