Selection curveball for Ireland
SIX NATIONS SPOTLIGHT: Joe Schmidt is allegedly poised to throw an opening weekend curveball.
Schmidt could possibly select midfielder Robbie Henshaw at fullback to face England next Saturday in Dublin.
With Rob Kearney absent from Ireland’s warm-weather camp in Portugal last week, RugbyPass reports that Henshaw trained in the No.15 position in a development that will add a level of intrigue ahead of Thursday’s team announcement.
Positional changes have been a hot topic in the build-up to the championship.
Schmidt’s England counterpart Eddie Jones got great mileage from his claim a few weeks ago that Exeter wing Jack Nowell could potentially operate at openside flank for England during the championship.
This suggestion was openly ridiculed, a slew of former English internationals bemused that the back-three player could suddenly be shunted into a forwards role he has never played in.
However, Henshaw has proven pedigree at fullback – even though he hasn’t started a match in the position since Connacht’s April 2016 Pro12 demolition of Munster in Galway.
The 25-year-old made his 2012/13 provincial level breakthrough in the position, even going on to make his Ireland debut at No.15 against the United States in June 2013.
But he has since become an out-and-out midfielder and he returned to action in this role for Leinster’s round six Champions Cup win over Wasps eight days ago before flying to Portugal.
His availability has created a selection headache for Schmidt. Henshaw damaged a hamstring in the lead-up to the November win over Argentina, leaving Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose to star as the combination in the Irish midfield in the following week’s win over New Zealand.
With both Aki and Ringrose now fit and ready for Six Nations duty along with Henshaw, Schmidt could potentially accommodate all three by omitting Kearney.
The long-serving fullback, who was at his best when beating the All Blacks, has had a frustrating winter since then. An injury niggle kept him out of Leinster’s last three European pool matches, forcing him to skip national camp in the Algarve for a PRO14 start last Friday versus Scarlets.
There has been speculation that Schmidt would favour using Leinster’s Henshaw/Ringrose partnership in the Ireland midfield to face England. However, Aki has made himself indispensable since making a November 2017 debut, starting in 12 of Ireland last 15 matches and only missing games against Fiji, Australia (second Test) and the United States.
By Liam Heagney, RugbyPass
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