Rugby World Cup: Iain Henderson has become real leader, says Easterby
Such was the impact of Ireland's win over New Zealand last November, a Kiwi journalist yesterday put it to Simon Easterby that it had been responsible for the All Blacks' dramatic late pivot to a dual playmaker tactic and the move of the world's best No.10 to full-back.
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Whatever about that moving parts behind the scrum, that famous Ireland win was one built upon the most solid of bedrock up front where Joe Schmidt's pack matched the world champions in a physical fashion they'd been unable to do when Steve Hansen's men had last been in Dublin three years ago.
Those presumed to be occupying the jerseys one through eight in Tokyo on Saturday when the sides meet again in the World Cup quarter-final will need no introduction to the All Blacks then. Indeed, there figures to be only one change from 11 months ago, that of Iain Henderson being brought into the starting side having made his impact from the bench last time.
The 27-year-old has long been the man for a big occasion.
Having made his Ireland debut all the way back in 2012, it was his performances at the last World Cup that truly brought him to wider attention, while his midweek form for the British and Irish Lions in 2017 and consistently excellent Champions Cup displays in Ulster colours have only heightened the notion that the bigger the challenge, the better his showings.
Against Scotland in Yokohama three weeks ago, the Ulster captain-in-waiting scaled the heights again and, alongside the consistently excellent James Ryan, it is clear Schmidt's Ireland pack are a different proposition when Henderson taps into that vein of form.
"We're fortunate that we have James and Hendy playing really well at the moment," said forwards coach Easterby yesterday from Ireland's slightly unusual base overlooking Tokyo Disneyland.
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"Iain is past 50 caps now, he's a leader in the group in terms of how he plays the game, his actions. I think that partnership has gone from strength to strength and it's gone really well so far.
"James in particular, just over two years ago he was making his debut and he's certainly not disappointed anyone in his performances. It's been no surprise to us, it might have come as a surprise to some people.
"I think he was destined to play at this level and he just looks comfortable. He puts a lot of pressure on himself, he works incredibly hard as does Iain."
On Saturday against the All Blacks, they could be going head-to-head with a historically significant All Blacks engine room, "one of the best partnerships the All Blacks have had in a long time," in the words of Easterby.
While Brodie Retallick is short of match practice, and there have been some whispers that Scott Barrett may instead get the start, his partnership with Sam Whitelock has been a driving force behind two World Cup triumphs and is now targeting an unprecedented third in succession.
There is no greater challenge but it's one that Schmidt has had them preparing for well in advance.
With the emergence of Ryan coming while Henderson was on that Lions tour two summers ago, the Ulsterman's return to the fold come that autumn's November series produced a three-into-two equation.
In what was far from a foregone conclusion, it was Schmidt's old reliable, Devin Toner, who through little fault of his own ended up the odd man out moving forward and now finds himself turning out for Leinster with the eyes of the rugby world firmly elsewhere.
While there were instances, such as that All Blacks game a year ago in the aftermath of line-out issues against Argentina, when his towering presence was recalled, the gut feeling has long been that the head coach believed his best chance of finishing on a high here in Japan was with a dynamic duo powering things forward from the second-row.
Now, if Ireland are to succeed in this most testing of arenas, they need Henderson and Ryan physically primed to repel the type of onslaught that was weathered when these teams last met in Dublin, while also switched on to avoid the kind of brief lapse that saw South Africa put to the sword in the most ruthlessly impressive five minutes this tournament has witnessed to date.
Such a foundational pre-requisite that it goes almost without saying, a solid line-out is also a must. It's here that the duo have had to do the most learning on the job but, despite a costly pair of miscues against Japan, the Irish set-piece has not been the area of concern it was thought to be heading to this tournament.
Largely with Henderson calling the shots and Ryan and Peter O'Mahony offering their two cents, the maul has again been given the platform to become a weapon.
"I think I was looking at both South Africa and New Zealand after we beat Samoa knowing that we'd be playing one of them and both of those teams were going to be threats (come the line-out)," added Easterby. "New Zealand are a big threat and I think we can also have an impact on their set-piece.
"As much as it's vital that we get on the front foot and give ourselves the opportunity to win front foot ball at scrum and line-out, the pressure will clearly come on at times, but we have the ability to put the pressure on them and I think that it's another one of those battles going on within the big picture."
It's big-picture thinking that has led to so much investment in Ireland's second-row pairing from so far out.
There is no bigger stage now on which for them to deliver.
Oct 19: England v Australia (Oita, 8.15am)
Oct 19: New Zealand v Ireland (Tokyo, 11.15am)
Oct 20: Wales v France (Oita, 8.15am)
Oct 20: Japan v South Africa (Tokyo, 9am)
Oct 26: Winner QF1 v Winner QF2 (Yokohama, 9am)
Oct 28: Winner QF3 v Winner QF4 (Yokohama, 9am)
Third-place play-off November 1, Tokyo 9am
Final November 2, Yokohama 9am