The path has cleared for Robbie Henshaw to don the Ireland 13 jersey many believe he was born to wear, but the Ireland management want the pressure to stay off the Connacht youngster as long as possible.
With Saturday’s clash against Australia coming too soon for Jared Payne to recover from the sprained foot he injured two weeks ago while making his Test debut at outside centre against South Africa, midfield partner Henshaw is now in line to switch from the 12 to 13 jersey.
If he is selected to face the Wallabies, it will be the 21-year-old Connacht man’s fifth cap since making his Test debut as a teenager on the 2013 summer tour to North America, when he started at full-back for interim head coach Les Kiss against the USA.
Spells off the bench against Canada a week after his debut and in last November’s loss to Australia meant the South Africa game a fortnight ago was Henshaw’s first home start, while this weekend could mark his first run in the 13 jersey since Brian O’Driscoll vacated it on retirement at the end of the Six Nations last March.
Having for so long been seen as O’Driscoll’s heir apparent, his inheritance of the iconic No 13 jersey would naturally attract attention, and forwards coach Simon Easterby was yesterday keen not to add to the hyperbole.
“He had a really good game against South Africa but he was backed up as well by what was around him,” Easterby said. “You know, Jared, it was his first Test but he’s an experienced rugby player and that would have rubbed off on Robbie, and the same with Johnny (Sexton) inside and Tommy (Bowe) outside and Kearns (Rob Kearney) at full-back.
“I think Robbie’s in a good place at the moment. He’s a real competent kid. But, let’s not put too much pressure on him.”
Payne will compete his rehabilitation back at Ulster, having been ruled out of the third and final Guinness Series clash at Aviva Stadium, leaving Joe Schmidt a straight choice of centre partnerships, both featuring Henshaw at 13.
Forwards coach Simon Easterby agreed with yesterday’s assessment that with Payne out, Ireland’s midfield pairing would either be Gordon D’Arcy or Stuart Olding playing alongside Henshaw.
“That’s exactly it,” Easterby said. “There’s always going to be conjecture over who’s going to be filling those slots.
“I thought Jared and Robbie did really well against South Africa but Jared has obviously not made it back to full-fitness and is out and does not get a chance to add to his first cap.
“Robbie is seen as someone who did really well against South Africa. He didn’t play against Georgia and whoever partners him, whether it be Stuart or Darce, has a big job to do because Jared and Robbie combined pretty well together.
“I think there is definitely different dimensions to both those guys. Darce has got 80 caps now, you can’t just produce that type of experience overnight and he’s a big game player.
“Stu’s gone really well for Ulster, when he gets going forward he’s got good footwork, he sees the game really well and can play in more than one position as well so there’s a good balance to those two as to who plays alongside Robbie.
“It will be the guys that we feel that on the day can produce the goods and can combine well enough to get that selection at 12 and 13.”
Ireland have another selection dilemma this weekend with first-choice hooker Rory Best back in contention after missing the wins over South Africa and Georgia with a calf injury. That puts the Ulster skipper in competition with Sean Cronin, who started against the Springboks, and Richardt Strauss, who was handed the job in the 49-7 win over the Georgians, each of them scoring a try in their respective starts.
“It’s a great position to be in,” Easterby said. “We’ve three very good hookers available to us.
“(Best) is probably at a different place in terms of his experience than the other two and you have to reward some of that experience sometimes, in terms of knowing what a guy can do. Having him available is a real plus.”
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