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Comment: Schmidt's next Henshaw step will be intriguing but Ireland shouldn't over-react to England defeat

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Prior to Saturday's thumping at the Aviva Stadium, you had to go all the way back to the year 2000 for the last time Ireland and England renewed acquaintances so early in a Six Nations Championship.

Round one match-ups between these two are few and far between, but that contest in the year Italy first joined proceedings produced a similarly chastening experience to Saturday past, a 50-18 hammering at Twickenham that saw England run in six tries with Jonny Wilkinson adding 20 points from the boot to bring up a record total against Ireland in the tournament.

Those were dark days for Irish rugby. The World Cup the previous year had been something of a disaster, albeit one with a now familiar ending thanks to defeat against Argentina, while the Dublin crowds had not witnessed a home win in the tournament for three seasons.

In the two weeks that were then between rounds one and two, head coach Warren Gatland overhauled his team for the visit of Scotland, bringing in five new caps for the game.

Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer, John Hayes, Shane Horgan and current forwards coach Simon Easterby all debuted.

The image of Mick Galwey with his arms around young Munster colleagues O'Gara and Stringer during the anthems became somewhat iconic, while the new Irish charges were to the fore in a 44-22 win that was the side's most comprehensive Championship performance for a number of years.

The identity of the first two opponents, though, is where the similarities to this week end, and it would be a seismic shock to see Joe Schmidt react in a similar fashion when he names his squad for Murrayfield tomorrow afternoon.

While Ireland were obliterated by Eddie Jones' men, he'll be banking on a response from the same key men that brought such success in 2018 in order to get the campaign back on track in this World Cup year.

While the time between now and the trip to Japan in the autumn will see plenty of concern regarding how Jones and his coaching team were able to devise a plan with which to so comprehensively dismantle Ireland, this is a group who prior to Saturday had lost just one of their last 19 fixtures.

Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, a little extra rope is to be afforded.

Where change is to be expected, however, it seems like it will be forced.

The facial fractures suffered by CJ Stander during the opening round loss had already ruled out the Munster No.8 and there was further bad news yesterday from Carton House.

Devin Toner's ankle problem has ruled him out of the visit to Murrayfield, so too Garry Ringrose's hamstring.

To lose Toner, when already dealing without Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson, is a serious stretch of Ireland's rich second-row resources.

Who will partner James Ryan comes down to the Connacht pair of Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux, with Munster's Billy Holland added to the squad yesterday.

Dillane is the only one of that trio to have been in the initial panel but it was Roux who came off the bench on Saturday.

Holland has enjoyed two great European cameos for Munster of late but it would still be a surprise to see him leapfrog the Connacht pair.

Sean O'Brien, you feel, is a ready-made replacement for Stander who will bring exactly what Ireland were lacking.

It is the absence of Ringrose, though, that makes things most interesting. The Leinster centre was arguably his side's best player on Saturday.

The obvious fix would be to switch Robbie Henshaw back into the centre, with either Rob Kearney, Will Addison or Jordan Larmour to 15, but to abandon the plan of exposing Henshaw to the rigours of Test rugby there would be akin to admitting to a failed experiment after only 80 minutes.

It was a move that was considered by Schmidt long before Kearney's rusty performance against the Scarlets in provincial colours and, while nobody will claim the early returns were a success, Henshaw has the ability to adapt with time.

The tried and trusted might give Ireland a better chance of victory in Saturday's battle, but questions over their readiness for the war of a World Cup should anything happen to Kearney will persist.

Keeping Henshaw as his side's last line of defence means finding a new partner for Bundee Aki. Again Addison is an option having impressed for Ulster throughout the backline while Tyrone native Chris Farrell is in form.

Whether Henshaw is the first or fourth name read out by Schmidt will be the most intriguing aspect. Beyond that, there should not be change for the sake of it. This is no year 2000. The future is already here.

Belfast Telegraph

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