Entering match week four of the Rugby World Cup, Robbie Henshaw is feeling fully charged and refreshed after a ‘nice and chilled’ few days in Paris during the Ireland’s squad down time.
The picture has changed in Pool B since Ireland’s 13-10 win over reigning champions South Africa. The Springboks are top of the table on 15 points following their 49-18 defeat of Tonga, with Scotland, as expected, coming right back into contention with back-to-back bonus point victories.
Unbeaten Ireland still have their destiny very much in their own hands, sitting on 14 points with the Scots on 10, but it does mean that Saturday night’s Celtic derby at the Stade de France is effectively a shootout for the quarter-finals.
Ireland have dominated this fixture in recent seasons with eight straight wins, and have won twelve of the last 13 meetings. However, you write off a Scottish team at your peril, and Henshaw knows exactly the type of challenge they will pose.
“Every time we play Scotland we know they’re going to come for us,” he said, speaking at the team base in Tours. “Now we can see what it means to them and what they want to chase, and what we want to chase as well in terms of getting those four (pool) wins.
“They’re going to come and have a go like they always do, through Finn Russell and getting the ball to the width. They’ll have a plan and we’ll just need to make sure we’re rock solid and we attack it.”
Henshaw got another half-an-hour of game-time under his belt against South Africa, coming on during Garry Ringrose’s first half HIA and then as a permanent replacement just past the hour mark.
The Athlone man has played in four of Ireland’s last five matches, including starts against Italy and Samoa in the lead up to the World Cup. If he gets an opportunity to feature this weekend, he readily accepts that he has to make the most of it given the form of the other centres.
Bundee (Aki) has been brilliant. His body is in great shape, he is flying fit, as has Garry. The lads’ performances have been consistent.
“Bundee has been flying in terms of getting tries. He’s been letting us know he’s near the top of the try scorers’ list (with four tries so far), which we’ve been having a laugh about!
“They’ve been outstanding. Whenever I get a chance to come in, it’s making sure I put my best foot forward and whenever I come off the bench, put in a good performance.”
As well as Henshaw, Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey, who is in buoyant mood after the birth of his second son, is pressing to be involved and make his World Cup debut, as is the versatile Jimmy O’Brien, who played at centre against the ‘Boks last November.
Ireland’s strength in depth in midfield – and clean bill of health – is a huge asset at this stage of the tournament, especially if the starting pair for Saturday continue to produce the sort of form that Aki and Ringrose have across the opening three rounds.
“There’s always in the past – Six Nations, Novembers – there’s always been one of us (centres) in or out due to injury or whatever,” acknowledged Henshaw, who scored his eighth Test try against Scotland in March 2021.
“Hopefully we can keep us all fit. But the quality we have, we’ve great strength in depth in those positions, even the likes of ‘Earlsie’ (Keith Earls) being able to come in at 13 and Jimmy, the depth we have here is key for playing in a World Cup because anything can happen.”
The 30-year-old Leinster star admitted it was ‘all hands on deck’ when he was initially sprung from the bench against South Africa. It was his chop tackle on Pieter-Steph du Toit that allowed James Lowe to get in for a turnover at a crucial stage.
Keeping Jacques Nienaber’s men to just one try – and eight points in all – was a huge factor in the overall outcome. That was also the case when Ireland beat Scotland in the 2022 and 2023 Six Nations, winning 26-5 in Dublin and 22-7 in Edinburgh respectively.
As things stand, Ireland have the third best defensive record across the pools, conceding 32 points so far compared to host nation France’s 25 and England’s 22. Maintaining those standards will be vital against Scotland in such a high-stakes encounter.
“We had a good look at what we did against South Africa. I think our defence, we showed some great pictures in defence but we know we can go (up) another level,” insisted Henshaw.
“Definitely in attack, we took some steps forward but we left some opportunities out there as well. Looking at everything from our set-piece lineout, how can we get better there? In the first few moments we missed a few lineouts and that let South Africa off the hook a bit.
“Definitely we’ll break down bits like that and make sure we learn from it and we grow.”