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Robbie Henshaw is currently enhancing the complexity of Ireland's precise machinery.
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Robbie Henshaw is currently enhancing the complexity of Ireland’s precise machinery.

Pass, move. Pass, move. Perpetually advancing. Always forward. Like the cogs of a Swiss pocket watch, Ireland’s attack operates with machine-like precision. Johnny Sexton retires, Jack Crowley keeps the enterprise thrumming. Andy Farrell makes five changes to a pack that crushed France in Marseille and Italy’s forwards get the same treatment a week later. Tick, tick. Pass, move.

According to Sage analytics, Ireland has an average pass distance of 5.8 meters in the current Six Nations tournament. In their game against Italy, 122 of their passes were under five meters. None of the other teams in the previous week made more than 66 short passes. Ireland’s strategy of passing around the edges and focusing on the outer shoulder of the defense allows their ball carriers to maintain a continuous momentum that appears unbeatable.

“I believe our forwards excel at executing short passes,” states Paul O’Connell, the coach for Ireland’s forwards. He seems unimpressed by the tight five’s smooth handling abilities, as if it’s a common occurrence. “This is something we frequently expect from them. In fact, they often work in sets of three, with the backs positioned behind them, allowing for short passes both internally and externally.”

Gonzalo Quesada, the head coach of Italy, compared Ireland to a prime New Zealand team. He stated that Ireland’s efficient set piece allowed them to execute their game plan effectively, resulting in a dominant 36-0 victory over his team in Dublin. According to Quesada, when Ireland is performing at this level, there are few teams in the world that can defeat them.

After securing two victories, there has been increasing talk of achieving a second grand slam in consecutive years. However, former player and 2009 slam winner O’Connell has downplayed the hype. He explains, “While winning is always our goal and we strive to win every tournament we enter, we try not to dwell on it too much. Instead, we shift our focus to the next game and work on improving our performance by identifying areas that need attention.”

Consistency is key. According to O’Connell, unlike other teams in Ireland’s league, there has not been significant turnover in the locker room since the World Cup ended. “Our team is very experienced and stable. When you have a stable team, you start to see the benefits. We can build upon our foundation and improve on the basics.” This may be why changes in players, even in important positions, do not disrupt the team’s stability.

O’Connell acknowledges Sexton’s influence, stating that the former fly-half’s legacy continues. In the absence of Sexton, leaders such as new captain Peter O’Mahony and senior players including Caelan Doris, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, and Garry Ringrose have stepped up to maintain high standards and prevent this new chapter from being overshadowed by another World Cup quarter-final defeat.

Forwards coach Paul O’Connell and Josh van der Flier during training this week

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Robbie Henshaw is expected to take on a larger role in the team. If he is chosen to play against Wales, the 30-year-old midfielder will reach his 70th appearance. Despite a hamstring injury limiting his playing time to only 59 minutes in two World Cup games where he was a substitute, Henshaw, known for his strong running, feels that he is performing at his peak.

“I have always aimed for consecutive games,” Henshaw explains. “Each week that I play, I gain more confidence. I have been progressing well and I believe there is still more potential within me.”

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Following the letdown of the World Cup, Henshaw visited the Aspetar high-performance center in Doha for a week. He describes it as a “work holiday”, but was actually following a strict regimen that closely monitored his training and aided in speeding up his recovery.

After returning from the World Cup, Henshaw admits that he was not in the best physical or mental condition. It took several weeks and returning to play for Leinster for him to regain his top form. Reflecting on the past year, he acknowledges that it has been inconsistent. He is grateful that he is now feeling physically and mentally strong, allowing him to perform well.

Henshaw mentions his collaboration with Jacques Nienaber, a successful coach for South Africa who is currently an assistant at Leinster. Out of the 19 players in Farrell’s Six Nations team, a significant number are from Dublin’s Leinster club, contributing to the team’s impressive consistency.

“We are continuously adding layers every week,” states Henshaw, reiterating O’Connell’s sentiments. Despite being in separate press briefings, the functioning gears work with a mechanical accuracy.

Source: theguardian.com