The Six Nations is a draining affair so it was no shock to learn Robbie Henshaw opted for some down time at home rather than a trip abroad like a few of his colleagues when Joe Schmidt handed them a four-day pass last week.
Henshaw is more than just a head-down, ball-up-the-jumper centre but Schmidt tasks him with direct lines of running. He clocked in for 80-minute shifts against Scotland and France, and a bruised quad against Italy curbed his input in Rome to 48 minutes.
All that has taken a toll.
His ability to make the hardest yard was critical two weeks ago against France when Conor Murray fed him from a scrum in the red zone, Henshaw broke the gain line as first receiver and the Munster scrum-half wriggled over from the second phase.
In a perfect world, the Leinster back would be utilised in a manner that showcases his wide array of talents to more effect but he has been allotted his role in the Irish team for now and it’s one that he professes to be happy with, as he closes in on a 28th cap against Wales this Friday.
“It’s good to be able to do both: be a ball player and a direct carrier, to help the team out. I don’t mind doing that role at all. It’s like the American (NFL) game in international rugby: you don’t have that time and space on the ball so taking it up the narrow channels in the middle, if it is what’s needed, I can play that game.”
With Garry Ringrose soaking up ever more time and experience alongside him at 13 with both Leinster and Ireland, and full-back rarely mentioned as an outlet for his talents, it looks likely that Henshaw will be working a groove for himself at 12 for the foreseeable future.
He hasn’t given up on 13 but, while he would suggest that there isn’t all that much difference between inside and outside-centre after first phase ball, the statistics from Ireland’s first three Six Nations games this year paint a different picture.
Henshaw has carried the ball 38 times for an average gain of just over 1.5 metres. He has made no offloads. Ringrose has made five runs less but for 140 metres at an average of 4.25m and he has offloaded four times.
Just as revealing, maybe, is the fact that Ringrose has two tries after six caps. Henshaw has the same after 27 and his approach work up the gut means that he is rarely in the frame when the cameras capture the mass celebrations after a try.
“No. Hopefully that’s because I have done the hard work beforehand and I get the pat on the back afterwards.”
Schmidt railed against the notion that Ireland are over-reliant on ‘one-out’ phases ahead of the game against France but the reality is that they are a heavily structured side and one that depends on set-piece plays for a strikingly high percentage of their scores.
If there have been signs of that shifting in the last six months, then Wales have long struggled to shake off the one-dimensional tag with the criticism being that they are a side that seeks to dominate the opposition physically and one that struggles when that fails.
With a 6’4”, 17-stone-plus Jamie Roberts coming off the bench this last few months, it is easy to assume that they carry a size advantage in the midfield this week but the likelihood is that Henshaw will be the tallest of the players wearing 10, 12, or 13 at the Principality Stadium.
“Physicality-wise, Wales are up there with the sheer size in their backs, probably one of the biggest backlines in the championship,” he said. “So it is going to be a tricky test for us and a challenge but we’ve played these guys a lot of times and we know what they’re about.
“We really need to be solid in our hits and hold onto them because they’re big strong guys. The likes of Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams, if they get a half-shoulder, they’ll get up and they’ll go again. So we need to be locked on in defence and stay connected around 10, 12, 13 and we can control that.”
And punch a few holes themselves while they’re at it.
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