Iain Henderson has identified two key areas that Ireland will need to be on top of if they want to continue their good recent form against Scotland at BT Murrayfield on Sunday.
Stretching back to the 2018 Six Nations, Ireland have recorded five straight victories over their Celtic rivals. This weekend’s round four encounter presents them with an opportunity to extend this sequence.
However, they will be facing a Scottish side that secured a shock win over 2020 champions England at Twickenham just a few short weeks ago.
Having studied the Calcutta Cup clash, along with their narrow defeat to Wales with 14 men a week later, Henderson knows what Ireland will need to get right in Edinburgh.
“I think they’ve a massive counter-attacking threat,” the second row said of Scotland. “They’ve substantial breakdown threats as well. That’s two of the areas that we’ve looked at and worked on.
“We need to be making sure when we do turnover the ball, players like Finn Russell and (Stuart) Hogg, we need to make sure we’re shutting those guys down early. Making sure they don’t get a lifeline into the game through that and breakdown as well.
“They’ve got guys who can poach the whole way through their pack and back-line too. Their turnover threats are going to be huge for us.
“Again, that will negate their counter attack game, but we need to be making sure we’re nailed on in our breakdown area there. Especially in attack.”
Whereas Ireland secured an encouraging 48-10 victory at the expense of Italy in Rome last time out, Scotland were left idle in round three due to the postponement of their match against France due to a Covid-19 outbreak in the French camp.
Henderson is unsure if this will give Ireland an advantage heading into the contest, having previously experienced both sides of the coin in this regard.
It’s difficult to weigh up those two arguments, because I’ve been in a scenario before where we haven’t played in a number of weeks and you feel very fresh going into it.
“Then sometimes in the back of your mind it crawls in, ‘oh flip, is my conditioning up to standard here?’. However, I feel like we’re in a good position personally. In the shoes I’m sitting at the minute, I would have preferred to have played two weeks ago.
“I’m glad that we did. A good few of their guys did get back and play for their club teams. Conditioning mightn’t be at the forefront of their minds, but a bit of the team closeness or how connected they’ll be, will hopefully be playing on their minds.”
After partnering Tadhg Beirne in the engine room – as a replacement and then as captain – in the games against Wales and France, Henderson renewed his partnership with James Ryan for the visit to Italy.
This did not rule Beirne out of the reckoning, however, with the Kildare native switching seamlessly to blindside flanker and delivering a player-of-the-match performance.
Henderson believes his role largely remains the same regardless of who he is alongside in the second row. He is excited by the prospect of being in the same pack as both Ryan and Beirne.
“Personally no, I don’t think my role changes massively,” he admitted. “Obviously the game against France I was captain, so there’s a slight variation in role there.
“To compare and contrast them, it’s difficult to pull something out of nowhere, but Tadhg obviously plays a lot more like a 6, whereas James will play a lot more like a second row. A good, hard-working, but still incredibly dynamic second row.
“We’ve obviously seen Tadhg playing in the back row numerous times and he does an incredible job. I enjoy playing with both of them on the field at once, to be honest.
“I think they compliment each other very well. In terms of working well in the defensive lineout together. Even to have them both in the attacking lineout is very beneficial.”
Since the bonus point success against Italy, Henderson’s Ulster team-mate Jacob Stockdale has returned to the international fold. He has fully recovered from a troublesome knee injury sustained in an interprovincial clash with Munster on January 2.
The back-three specialist lined out for Ulster against the Ospreys and Leinster over the past two weekends and is now very much in contention for the Scotland showdown and next week’s visit of England to the Aviva Stadium. Henderson added:
Jacob has slipped back in there and he’s been really good all week, trained well. I feel he’s going well. He’s adding to the environment down here (at the IRFU High Performance Centre).
“He was chatting after training there to the group about feeling the stress of which the team who were playing were putting him under personally.
“It’s great to have him back down here. It’s great to see him back involved. Fingers crossed we’ll be seeing him more over the coming weeks. He’s glad to be back after a frustrating injury for him.”