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Schmidt Weighs Up Centre Options For Series Opener

Schmidt Weighs Up Centre Options For Series Opener

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt is poised to throw Connacht youngster Robbie Henshaw into action against South Africa in the opening game of the GUINNESS Series next week.

The most recent of Robbie Henshaw’s three appearances for Ireland came during a 14-minute spell against Australia last November, but the retirement of Brian O’Driscoll looks set see him fight it out with Ulster’s Jared Payne for the vacant number 13 spot.

Should he start he will likely come up against Springbok captain Jean de Villiers, who has 99 more caps to his name than Henshaw, and fellow 21-year-old Jan Serfontein. While not the ideal ‘gradual introduction’ for the Athlone native, Joe Schmidt is confident he can make the grade.

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“I guess in nine days’ time we will know,” said Schmidt on whether Henshaw (pictured above with fans at the open training session) is ready to start. “You never know until a player has been put in a position. There would be better ways for Robbie to be prepared, probably a better introduction, a more gradual introduction to come against (Jan) Serfontein and Jean de Villiers most likely. That is a massive ask.

“We know a bit about Jean de Villiers with his time spent in Munster and we know him a little bit. Serfontein is a player who has improved massively in the last 18 months. He is a very complete player. He is a very strong player, but a very good reader of the game as well now.

“Those two and whoever is inside them, whether it’s (Handre) Pollard or (Pat) Lambie or (Morne) Steyn, Robbie gets the opportunity to do his job and how much help he can give to the wingers because we are going to stay connected there with whether it be (Bryan) Habana, JP Pietersen or Cornal Hendricks, or (Willie) le Roux chiming in from the back. There is a good challenge for him there. Whether he is ready for the challenge, as I’ve said, we will find out.”

But Schmidt also has the option of starting the equally versatile Payne (pictured below) at outside centre. Neither Payne nor Henshaw travelled to Argentina for the summer tour, with the former only recently becoming eligible for Ireland through residency.

Payne’s four years spent in New Zealand between 2007 and 2011 with the Chiefs, Crusaders and Blues is seen as an advantage for Schmidt who is also keeping an eye on another Ulster back, Stuart Olding, who starts for the province in the GUINNESS PRO12 this weekend.

“I think there is potential for Jared to start. He ran today with Gordon D’Arcy and Robbie Henshaw. We’re keeping an eye on Stuart Olding this weekend and again Stuart is another guy that needs some game-time.

“With Jared, his angles of running, his ability to read the defence and defend successfully has been top notch. His ability to play a little bit of a kicking game from a second receiver is another asset for Jared with his full-back skills. He has brought a little bit of experience.

“He has played against a number of these South African players before. That is an a bit of an advantage as well, knowing your opponent and he can bring that experience to the group.”