Thursday 8 December 2016

Henshaw off the leash

Athlone ace ready for rugby's biggest challenge as Ireland look to avenge agony of last-gasp 2013 defeat to New Zealand writes Donnchadh Boyle

Published 29/10/2016 | 02:30

Canterbury ambassador Robbie Henshaw pictured at the Ultimate Farm Challenge at Abbeyfield Farm. Competition winners were selected to take part on the day and they were kitted out with Canterbury training wear, which can be viewed online at www.canterbury.com
Canterbury ambassador Robbie Henshaw pictured at the Ultimate Farm Challenge at Abbeyfield Farm. Competition winners were selected to take part on the day and they were kitted out with Canterbury training wear, which can be viewed online at www.canterbury.com

Those who knew Robbie Henshaw before he became the Robbie Henshaw the rest of us know all say the same thing.

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They say that the young Robbie from Coosan, who seemed to find everything from music to sport sickeningly easy, is just the same as the fella that sits before us now, endorsing Canterbury, fielding questions about the All Blacks and how, as a toddler, he was tied to a leash for his own safety.

More on that later.

The deals with sponsors, the fame and the money haven't changed him. But still you get the impression he'll never quite be comfortable with the interview process. It's not that he finds them difficult. It's more likely he wonders what all the fuss was about.

And that's probably understandable because he's never known any different. Right through his teens, various managers from various codes have knocked on his door looking to get their star man out. More often than not he obliged. Saturdays used to involve rugby in the morning before heading straight over to play with Athlone GAA club a few hours later. Teams kept asking him out, and he kept going and he kept succeeding. For him, very little has changed.

Tux

Henshaw has effectively grown up before our eyes. Here is a man who made his Connacht debut the morning after his debs.

When his classmates were bleary eyed and on the way home, he was jumping on a plane, tux folded neatly away.

In many ways he's the ultimate product of his town. In Athlone, high-level soccer, rugby and Gaelic football are on your doorstep. Talented young men can go in any direction. He played schoolboys soccer for St Francis in the Athlone and District schoolboys league. A year behind him was Ray Connellan, one of his best friends who tomorrow heads Down Under to pursue a career in the AFL.

"I meet him this week, losing him is a big loss for (Athlone GAA) club. He's been class for them but it is great to see him taking this chance and going down."

A year ahead of him at St Francis was Robbie Benson, who is busy scoring goals in Europe for Dundalk these days. "I played with him in school," Henshaw recalls. "He was a savage player. Yeah there's great athletes from the town."

Henshaw had been a Westmeath minor for two years but in the end, rugby won out. A taste of international action, and all the possibilities it offered, was enough to tip the scales.

"I loved Gaelic and it was tough giving it up but at rugby I got an international schools cap and that hadn't been done before in Athlone so I said I'd give it the best shot I could. I got in with Connacht and when that happened that's when I said 'yeah it's definitely rugby'.

"I always admired the sport, loved it, loved the physical side of it so I went with it and dropped Gaelic. When I went full-time rugby I said hopefully I'll be back to Gaelic in the future. I'm looking forward to that some day."

Athlone has shaped him in another way too. Sitting as it does straddling the Shannon, it blurs some usually well-defined lines. His Marist school play GAA in Leinster but rugby in Connacht. And when it came to leaving Galway for Dublin this summer, it only served to further muddy the waters of an already difficult decision.

"People in Leinster would say 'well by right you're from Leinster' and it is true I am from Leinster. Buccaneers are based in Leinster but the history of the club was that it was amalgamated with Buccaneers in Ballinasloe. And they always played in Connacht and I always played in Connacht as a schoolboy but played Leinster schools football for Marist."

He won't play against Connacht today as Joe Schmidt turns his front line players' attention towards Chicago and the all-conquering All Blacks on Saturday week.

In one way it's a pity for Henshaw. There's no regrets about swapping Galway for Dublin but there's probably a part of him that would like to get the first meeting with his old side out of the way.

"It would be good to play against the lads. It would be interesting to see what they are like to play against too. I've never really physically challenged the lads. You'd be playing in training against them but it would be only touch (rugby). But being able to play against them full on (would be great). The time will come anyway, you can't avoid it."

His start to life at Leinster hasn't been ideal. The injury he picked up in the second Test in South Africa meant a long summer of rehab.

There was time to grab a week in Barbados where he met cricket legend Garfield Sobers but he presented himself for his first day in a new job in a knee brace.

The injury means he heads to Soldier Field with just three games under his belt this campaign as he prepares for a first taste of playing the All Blacks. He was the 24th man for the near miss in 2013, taking part in the warm-up.

That turned out to be the last chance for the likes of Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell to crown stellar careers with a win over New Zealand. After the agonising manner of that defeat, Henshaw decided to steer clear of those on the front-lines. afterwards.

"I didn't go into the dressing room afterwards. I went up to the function room and met my parents but I didn't go in because I knew how hard the lads would be hurting so I stayed back from the dressing room.

"It wasn't the place to be," he recalls. "I knew well the lads would've been speechless. I don't know what the mood would have been but it wouldn't have been nice.

"It, what, would have been what a draw if they missed (the conversion)? Some people said a draw would have felt worse. I don't know.

"It was a tough day for everyone in Ireland I suppose. We showed how close we were to overtaking them and knocking them over. It's going to be big ask (next weekend). I'm looking forward to hopefully get my chance to go out this time and play against them."

The All Blacks may be on a record-breaking run but it's probably not surprising Henshaw is relishing the chance. As a child, recognising dangerous situations wasn't his strong point.

On a family outing on their boat, Henshaw got excited and fell into the Shannon. His life-jacket ensured he was safe but just to be sure, his father put him on a leash to make sure he couldn't repeat the trick.

And while history will weigh heavily on Ireland next weekend, Henshaw points out that in South Africa in the summer they demonstrated an ability to break through glass ceilings.

"We showed we can create history and we went down with nothing to lose and we gave it a good shot. We wherever close in the last Test to getting a wining score and beating them.

"So it's a positive in terms of knowing what we can do and we can mix it with the bigger teams and even overtake them."

Irish Independent

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