Garry Ringrose’s potential return to action after six months on the sidelines may be music to the ears of the Ireland team management but in the wake of Robbie Henshaw’s shoulder injury, the Six Nations leaders have a serious experience deficit to make up before Wales visit in Dublin.
With defensive leader and first-choice outside centre Jared Payne still working his way back from the migraines he has been suffering since being ruled out of last summer’s Lions tour to New Zealand, Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt will have dreaded the worst-case scenario of Henshaw leaving the Aviva Stadium on Saturday with his arm in a sling to protect a shoulder injury sustained in the act of scoring his second try against Italy.
A medical update on Henshaw’s condition outlining his likely time on the sidelines is expected today with the 24-year-old having yesterday undergone a scan on his right shoulder. The probable loss of Henshaw’s experience as a 33-Test international with a Lions tour under his belt is the last thing Ireland need as they face a Welsh midfield led by Scarlets star Scott Williams.
Henshaw was the senior partner to Bundee Aki in the 56-19 thumping of Italy, the inside centre marking his fourth cap with a maiden Test try, one of eight scored by the Irish at the weekend, and earning the praise of Schmidt.
“He’s a creator of play as well as a go-forward player and he did the full gambit today,” the head coach said of Aki. “He put some nice passes away, linked really well, showed the ball and got through and behind them and got away a nice pass to Keith Earls to score.
“Bundee keeps growing into his game at the international level and we’re pretty keen for that to continue and other players are getting more comfortable playing alongside him.”
Earls moved in from the wing to outside centre once Henshaw’s race was run in the 44th minute last Saturday but the last time he started for Ireland in that position was in Payne’s absence at the 2015 World Cup when Argentina ran away with a quarter-final victory.
Against Italy, Ireland certainly seemed to lose their defensive solidity in the wake of Henshaw’s departure, conceding three late tries as the Azzurri finally troubled the scoreboard operators, though Earls brilliantly prevented a fourth to deny Conor O’Shea’s men a try bonus point as he hunted down a breakaway by full-back Matteo Minozzi.
“Robbie is superb defensively, and on the attack as well. I think Robbie is a class player,” Schmidt said.
Chris Farrell is the favourite among the current 36-man squad to next occupy the 13 jersey and at 6ft 4ins and 17st 4lbs possesses the sort of frame that could counter the expected hard and direct-running Wales midfield if Warren Gatland continues to shelve his November experiment of a twin-playmaker axis at 10-12.
Yet with only two caps to his name, both earned last November when the Munster man played alongside Aki against Argentina, a reunion with the Connacht man would leave Ireland’s centres lacking experience with just six caps between them and that would go against Schmidt’s selection instincts in a championship game.
The preferred option is clearly to parachute in a fit-again Ringrose.
“Garry’s making really good progress, next weekend (for Leinster against Scarlets in the PRO14) might be just one weekend too soon, but he’s not far away,” Schmidt said.
“But again it might be the weekend after, and for him to come back straight off an injury lay-off to play against Wales, that would be a tough call, but it’s a call we’d be happy to make based on Garry’s contributions, in the last Six Nations and he was superb on the summer tour.”
Schmidt is hopeful tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong will use the extra week’s preparation ahead of the Wales game to prove his fitness after feeling tightness in a hamstring and being removed as a precaution after just four minutes on Saturday.
Good news too on the progress of another Lion, flanker Sean O’Brien, who has missed the opening two rounds with a hip injury, Schmidt said the Tullow Tank was “trucking along pretty well”.
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