Our resident analyst is back to look at where Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose are excelling for province and country.
When Brian O’Driscoll stepped away from the game in 2014 it was feared that the Irish midfield would never again reach the heights that BOD and Gordon D’Arcy brought.
At the very least, it was thought that the midfield wouldn’t be on the up for a number of seasons as the young options took time to bed in on the international stage. Jump forward just two seasons and there is now a well stocked young group ready to force their way into the team.
During their historic victory against New Zealand, Ireland started Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne. In the next game against Canada; Luke Marshall and Gary Ringrose were the chosen pair. In the Kiwi re-match, Henshaw and Payne were once again the starters but Ringrose was called on after just ten minutes thanks to a Henshaw injury. In the final match of the series, Ringrose and Payne were slotted into midfield again.
In addition to these four players, Ulster have also got Darren Cave, Stuart McCloskey, and Stuart Olding to slide into the mix. Last but certainly not least, Connacht can offer Bundee Aki once he qualifies through residency in April 2017. However, the one pairing that stands out are Henshaw and Ringrose, who average just 22 years of age, and are currently combining in an incredibly exciting Leinster team. We will look at their performance against Northampton to understand where their strengths and weaknesses lie.
Against Saints, Henshaw took the Jamie Roberts-esque role – we will need to come up with a new name for this type of role soon.
He made fewer carries, for fewer yards, six carries for nine metres compared to Ringrose’s 12 carries for 49 metres. However, he was a rock defensively, with nine tackles without missing any, which was the highest number for a back and the third highest in the team.
His hard work allowed Ringrose, and the back three, to put up some gaudy metres made numbers. The starting back three made 177 metres, or 39 percent of the total yardage.
The first try is made by Rob Kearney but Ringrose has to take credit for his finishing and his inside run which fixes the defence and stops them from drifting over and stopping the fullback in his tracks. This really sets the tone for both Leinster’s and the centre pairings evening.
This is the next break of the day. Joey Carbery takes the ball to the line, which together with Isa Nacewa’s wide positioning, puts huge pressure on the Saints 10,12,13 axis.
Carbery’s pace prevents the Saints’ back row from getting across in time and Nacewa drags the winger wide and away from the direct threat.
Henshaw hits a short line directly at Stephen Myler and JJ Hanrahan which catches Burrell’s attention just long enough for Ringrose to drift wider and hit the space on the centre’s outside shoulder. In the end it comes to nothing but it’s another chunk of yardage for the Irish province.
Henshaw was less spectacular with his running but he did act as a release valve in the few occasions when Northampton had Leinster pinned down. In the below example, Leinster had a scrum on their own five-metre line.
Their exit strategy was to go one phase and then kick, the centre just lowered his shoulders, went through the line and then stayed on his feet long enough to prevent the defence from getting anywhere near the ball.
Henshaw wasn’t just a battering ram though, he also had a chance to do more with the ball. In the below example, Ringrose is the man to hit the line which frees up Henshaw to loop around the back and then deliver a perfect pass to the wing.
It’s hard to overstate just how impressive this pass is, off his left hand whilst moving at pace and yet he still hits his winger in stride. With both centres able to distribute incredibly well and run the hard lines, this provides too many possibilities for many defenses to shut down across the full 80 minutes.
Defensively, the pair also stood out. In the next example, Ringrose spots the wide threat but presumably he doesn’t trust Burrell’s pass to be the killer one needed in this situation. Instead, he holds his rush until the pass goes and then holds up the attacker for just long enough for support to arrive and steal the ball.
In the penultimate example, Henshaw shows just how good he is as a defender. He knows that there is an overlap but he just waits and lets the play unfold. He doesn’t jump out and leave his team mates isolated, he just waits for the attack to come to him.
As soon as his outside man drifts too much and leaves a gap for Jamie Elliott to bust through, Henshaw scampers across and makes a perfect tackle to halt the attack.
Lastly, and this isn’t the most spectacular bit of play, we see just how in control Henshaw is in defence. Prior to this clip he has directed the line through three phases. In the clip he is in the bodyguard position and has a team mate blitzing on his shoulder.
The Saints see the blitz and slip the ball back inside and into the centre. He simply gets underneath the ball and holds Ben Foden up. Not long enough to get the turnover but long enough to allow the defence to reset.
Leinster beat Northampton because they dominated the set-piece and each unit was better with the exception of the back row, or more specifically Tom Wood, who was probably the best player on the pitch before he was inexplicably subbed off after Dylan Hartley’s violent encore had ended.
However, the Leinster centre pairing were a constant source of positive yardage when the ball was tossed in their direction and they held the back line together against the, admittedly, infrequent Saints attack.
One thing is clear though, the future is very very bright for Leinster who will get the pleasure of these players on a weekly basis, and Ireland who you feel will rely on the pair in the run up to the next World Cup.