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Comment: Iain Henderson has what it takes to spearhead Ireland's World Cup challenge

Bright spark: Iain Henderson is showing his top quality
Bright spark: Iain Henderson is showing his top quality
James Ryan

By Cian Tracey

Their second-row partnership has been something of a slow burner, but all the signs suggest that James Ryan and Iain Henderson are ready to peak by the time they arrive in Japan.

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Making just their sixth start together against France on Sunday, the dynamic duo delivered the kind of performance they have promised since Ryan burst onto the scene as a force of nature.

When Paul O'Connell hung up his boots following the 2015 World Cup, the expectation was that Henderson would become a mainstay in the Ireland team, yet injuries and a dip in form have meant that the Ulster powerhouse has been in and out of the side.

Add in the hugely consistent form of Devin Toner and it's easy to see why Henderson has had to bide his time.

Toner remains central to Joe Schmidt's plans and as the lineout faltered in Rome, his stock rose in the same way that it did when he was dropped for last November's win over Argentina before being immediately returned to the starting XV the following week and expertly running the lineout in the victory against New Zealand.

The towering Toner would be the first to admit, however, that he is a different kind of lock to the all-action Ryan and Henderson and as he continues his recovery from ankle surgery, he wouldn't have been sitting that comfortably as he watched his team-mates rip it up at the Aviva.

Quinn Roux's reputation was enhanced with a fine performance in Murrayfield and even though he didn't hit the same heights against Italy, Schmidt knows what he is going to get from the powerful Connacht lock.

Ultan Dillane on the other hand has made huge strides throughout the campaign and has rediscovered his best form to complicate the selection dilemma even further.

And then there is the curious case of Tadhg Beirne, who Schmidt said was a "bit sore" last week. That soreness is likely to have multiplied when Beirne was told that he wasn't going to be selected for last weekend's squad.

It's difficult to know what more Beirne can do to force his way into the equation and while a knee problem hindered his chances in the early part, he showed no ill effects of the injury in his return against the Ospreys.

The 27-year-old is still waiting to make his Six Nations debut and given the form of the three locks who featured in the win over Les Bleus, that wait may well be extended into next year.

How that impacts his World Cup chances remains to be seen as Schmidt begins to narrow down what is a hugely competitive position.

Ryan is a certainty to start against Wales and at the World Cup, which means that Schmidt must find the ideal balance in a partner to play alongside the young star.

Toner and Ryan are an outstanding combination, but if Henderson continues in his current vein of form, it will be nigh on impossible to leave him out of the starting XV.

Although it was difficult to argue with Ryan winning the official man of the match award, Henderson couldn't have been far behind him in what was a return to his best form.

Ryan thrives when he plays with a lock who can free him up to do what he does best.

A total of 18 carries for 64 metres was an impressive return for a player who many expect is a future Ireland captain lying in wait, while he made 12 tackles without missing one.

Both Ryan and Henderson have also added lineout calling to their armoury, which pleases Schmidt no end, and even though Ryan has yet to do it at international level, Henderson is becoming an accomplished caller at this level.

"The lineout went well, Hendy did a great job calling and our process and fundamentals were all there so we're happy with that," Ryan said after the lineout woes were cured on Sunday.

"It was a good win at the end of the day, but I think we can do better."

Schmidt echoed those sentiments and he may well be of a mind to hand the pair a seventh start in Cardiff on Saturday as he looks to further the experience of what is increasingly looking like his preferred partnership.

If indeed they are given the nod, they will come up against one of the best lineout operators in the game as Alun Wyn Jones looks to lead Wales to the Grand Slam.

If Ryan and Henderson can build on last weekend's performance, they will be in pole position to start in the World Cup opener and spearhead Ireland's challenge.

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