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Joe Schmidt’s Fresh Faced Midfield – A Gamble?

Jonathan Fitzpatrick questions the decision of Joe Schmidt to start both Jared Payne AND Robbie Henshaw in the centre for the clash with South Africa.

Thursday the 6th of November 2014. A day that was in the pipeline for a number of years – the first time an Ireland team was named without Brian O’Driscoll in the scenario.

With the decorated Irish veteran retiring, the hot topic across Irish Rugby was his replacement. Who would take his place? Would it be Jared Payne, the Kiwi utility back? Or would it be Robbie Henshaw, the exciting young prospect from Athlone?

Joe Schmidt has thrown a huge curveball by selecting the two together.

This weekend we’ll see Robbie Henshaw start in first centre, while Jared Payne makes his debut for Ireland in that iconic 13 shirt. To say that it’s a slightly confusing selection is an understatement. While they will benefit from the experience of the likes of the Murray/Sexton axis, and Bowe/Kearney at full back, neither man has international test match experience, let alone much experience of top level rugby in the centre.

Both men have their merits for their respective positions. Payne runs great support lines, defends excellently from the 13 channel, and has a strong kicking game – also arguably a better distributor of the ball than Robbie Henshaw. While he hasn’t hit full heights in that position for Ulster yet, we know well what Payne can bring to that position. But, he’s still a better full back than he is a centre.

Robbie Henshaw, the much touted fullback is growing into his role in the centre, but now he’ll be stepping into the 12 role? Schmidt can talk about interchangeable centres, but it’s still unfamiliar territory for Henshaw. He’ll have a huge defensive shift ahead of him standing in front of all the traffic coming through the 12 channel, it’ll be more pressurised than ever before. He’s a powerful player, a strong runner ball in hand, he’s skilful, and he acquits himself well. But, he’s in for a different shift on Saturday.

It’s always going to be a big task to fill the void of Brian O’Driscoll, but surely partnering with Gordon D’Arcy would have made it easier? D’Arcy has huge experience across the midfield, and would aid his new colleague hugely in that regard. Although he struggled with injury early in the training sessions, he came right at the start of the week.

With Kearney and Ross making the cut, surely a week with either Henshaw or Payne would have been something. We’re playing South Africa, and a formidable Springbok team at that. Are we throwing Henshaw and Payne in at the deep end selecting them together opposite de Villiers and Serfontein? Most definitely. Especially considering the new duo are playing a position that isn’t their best, or one they aren’t overly familiar with.

Either Payne or Henshaw at 13 would slot into that role a lot better under the guidance and tutelage of 2/3rds of our celebrated midfield axis – Sexton and D’Arcy. We’re not left with one new face in midfield, we’re left with a new midfield.

Even if D’Arcy was still struggling with a minor injury, would Stuart Olding not offer a strong alternative? The talented centre has made a good start to his comeback at Ravenhill, and is an exceptionally talented inside centre. He’s another of those ‘one for the future’ type players. If it’s time for the future now, surely it’s time for Olding? It’s difficult to see either Henshaw or Payne forging a long term stay in the 12 channel.

The other puzzling selection that Joe Schmidt has gone for is Felix Jones on the bench. Rob Kearney has just returned from injury, so there may be question marks over his fitness. But in Simon Zebo, Robbie Henshaw, Jared Payne and Ian Madigan, we have more than enough cover at 15. Selecting an out and out specialist full back on the bench? An odd call.

To question the selection of Henshaw and Payne together is not to question their abilities. They are two brilliant players. While Payne’s season has come under criticism thus far, there is no questioning his abilities as a player, and playing with the likes of Murray and Sexton could bring a different level out of him. Similarly Henshaw has been on fire in Connacht, and has far and wide been touted as the next man to step into the outside centre. A superb athlete, he’s only going to get better and better.

So, are we to question Joe Schmidt? The man who delivered so much at Leinster, and the man who very nearly delivered a Grand Slam in his first year at Ireland? As puzzling as it is to imagine Henshaw and Payne playing alongside each other, they’ve been picked there for a reason. Joe Schmidt does know a little bit about this game of rugby, he’ll have his own reasons. If one man can deserve the benefit of the doubt, it’s Joe Schmidt.

Is it a risk? Yes. Is it a gamble? Certainly. But is it exciting? More than anything.

Roll on Saturday.

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Author: The PA Team

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