Joe Schmidt has said that a bit of “rustiness” shown by Rob Kearney in his performance against the Scarlets for Leinster last weekend played a part in his decision to start Robbie Henshaw at fullback on Saturday.
Schmidt named his side to face England earlier this afternoon and the big talking point was Henshaw’s inclusion at 15 at the expense of Kearney who has been left out of the matchday squad entirely.
Kearney has had an injury-disrupted couple of weeks with a recent quad injury but he made him comeback when he captained Leinster to their win over the Scarlets.
However, a disappointing performance in the game from the veteran fullback has raised questions as to whether he should start against England.
“He’s coming up to speed,” Schmidt replied when asked on Kearney’s exclusion.
“He’s trained really well this week, piece-by-piece. He was a little bit slow on Monday, better on Tuesday, sharp today. We would expect Rob will continue to make progress in that particular direction.
“He has really only had that one game against Scarlets. It was probably just a bit of rustiness we saw in that game that helped tip the balance and give Robbie that opportunity.”
Of course, the prospect of having Henshaw at fullback is an exciting one for Ireland. The 25-year-old burst onto the scene with Connacht when playing in the 15 position but his international career as predominately been as an inside centre.
There is some cause for concern with regards to starting Henshaw in a relatively unfamiliar position in an attritional international Test match but Schmidt was quick to allay those fears.
“Robbie trained last week and in November a little bit at full-back and he actually trained there in Australia (last summer) as well. He has been an option for us for some time there. Rob just ran out of time and we like the flexibility of Jordan (Larmour) give us off the bench. I thought he came on really well last season against England, coming into 13 and having to play the last 35 minutes.
“It’s one of those things that we have seen as an option for quite some time so it’s probably not as much of a surprise to Robbie and the team as it might be to other people.”
The risk of playing Henshaw, in Schmidt’s eyes, is due to the minutes under his belt rather than any positional fears.
“Probably more of a risk is his lack of game time full stop. He hasn’t actually played that much himself. We got to a situation where we had a few different options there and really we just felt the way he trained when we were away and this week, it was worth pursuing.
“Maybe even as a longer-term option, with 31 guys going to a World Cup, you need guys who can versatile so there is probably a little bit of that as well as Robbie being a good player and a recognised fullback anyway.”