Bodies and minds rested after a weekend off in Fukuoka, Ireland’s players return to work today looking for the elusive spark that could propel them past Samoa and onto a World Cup quarter-final with confidence renewed.
It may be that Robbie Henshaw is that spark.
There was no weekend pass for Henshaw.
Not for him the freedom to wander around Fukuoka’s bustling Hakata district or the endless miles of shopping centres, coffee shops and eateries that is the Tenjin, a magnetic pole for visitors and residents alike in the island of Kyushu’s biggest city.
Henshaw trained on Friday, despite the team’s shift from Kobe to Fukuoka on the bullet train, and again on Saturday.
Sunday involved some rehab on the hamstring injury that has kept him sidelined since Ireland’s first training session in Japan.
Chiba seems a lifetime ago now but Joe Schmidt and his medical staff have been taking the softly-softly approach with the Athlone man who participated in the captain’s run last Wednesday before the Russia game.
All told, he has been ‘on his feet’ for two weeks now, working in the gym and on the pitch, doing his speed work and regular rehab.
The plan is that he participates fully in collective training this week and starts against Samoa on Saturday. He will be a sight for sore eyes and, in Garry Ringrose’s case, sore legs, given the punishing shift the Dubliner has had to put in at centre with his club colleague’s absence.
“There were a lot of stories going around that I was flying home and I had to get surgery and stuff, but that wasn’t the case,” said Henshaw.
“It was a bit of a scare at the time, just a small tweak in the hammy. I had a previous injury there, that’s why there was concern over it.
He understands the faith that has been placed in him and takes confidence from it.
It’s probably fair to say that Schmidt would not have made do with just the 30 fit players through the first week of the tournament for just anyone, but Henshaw is that good.
His all-too-frequent injury issues have been a source of considerable frustration, both for him and for Schmidt.
And Henshaw, who missed the first two games of the 2015 World Cup for similar reasons, admits that the positive prognoses couldn’t prevent his mind from wandering.
“There were a few sleepless nights, just over-thinking things, the ifs and buts.
“But once you see yourself improving and hitting those targets that you put down, that gives you the reassurance that you are coming good.”
The beauty with Henshaw is that he has proven himself capable of hitting the ground running on his return regardless of how long the absence.
His one game this season, against Wales in Dublin, was proof of that given his superb performance on both sides of the ball.
His partnership with Bundee Aki that day in Dublin confirmed the suspicion for many, that it was the partnership pencilled in to start the tournament against the Scots back in Yokohama, but Ringrose’s stellar performances have muddied that water now.
A welcome complication.
Individual battles for places, or a perceived lack of them, are not the reasons Ireland have struggled for momentum here in Japan though.
There is something less tangible and more debilitating that is holding back a team that conquered all before it last year. Something just isn’t clicking and time is running out.
Henshaw may have been out of the loop in terms of game-time but he has clearly been kept abreast of the party line. The loss to Japan? A “minor blip,” he said.
Conditions, particularly in Kobe’s enclosed arena, were given the usual mention too.
“We executed a few scores nicely and potentially left a few out there,” he said of the unimpressive win against Russia.
“The big thing I got from it is that the group is good, positive about how we are going about our week.
“We are trying things and not going into our shell. We are trying to off-load and have a go. We are playing what’s on in front of us as well, which is the most important thing, so we can take a big step going forward.”
If there is one obvious positive for Ireland, it is in the concession of just 22 points across their three games to date. Ally that with an improved attacking prowess and this is still a team laden with experience and ability that could produce a big performance.
Henshaw can help in that regard. His size and his brute-force are considerable weapons, but he is a more intelligent and skilful player with ball in-hand than he is often given credit for, and he understands that it will take more than brawn to beat the Samoans next Saturday.
“As we saw against Scotland, Stuart Hogg was pinning the corners a nice bit, just turning them around so there could be a bit of space in the back-field.
“That could be a way, I suppose, to break it up a bit and just nail our basics as well. If we hold the ball and nail our breakdown, we can break them down.”
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