Friday 21 July 2017

Henshaw growing up in the fast lane

Just 21 years old, Connacht's Ireland midfielder is centre stage and in demand as he continues to go from strength to strength and his reputation soars

Robbie Henshaw wrapped up against the cold.
Robbie Henshaw wrapped up against the cold.
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

THE LIFE of a 21-year-old is all about decisions as college nears an end and real life choices loom into view.

Most struggle with the enormity of it all, but few have to do it in public. Robbie Henshaw may be a young man, but he attracts more scrutiny than most men his age.

Rarely does a week pass without a fresh link between the Athlone man and Leinster, the transfer that everyone is denying but won't go away.

As if it wasn't hard enough being touted as the next in line to Brian O'Driscoll's throne, while carrying the hopes and dreams of a province, Henshaw knows the questions over his future linger at all times, even though he's under contract for another year.

It's a good job the former Westmeath minor Gaelic footballer was born with broad shoulders.

Pat Lam says it's a non-story, Matt O'Connor doesn't know of a mechanism for moving a player between provinces while he's still in contract, and IRFU performance director David Nucifora has done his best to avoid the issue whenever he has met the press since arriving in Ireland.

Joe Schmidt was dragged into it all when former union president Pat Fitzgerald said it was up to the New Zealander to decide where the in-demand centre would play, but has managed to keep his counsel for the most part.

All the while, Henshaw builds his reputation on a weekly basis through his performances in the green of Connacht.

It is little wonder that the other provinces covet the 6ft 4ins powerhouse who has attracted interest from the four corners of the island during his short career to date.

QUICKLY

"I think I have had to grow up quickly," he admitted. "(Scrum-half) Kieran Marmion is in a similar position. To have him with me - the two of us started professional rugby at the same time - is good.

"I have a lot to thank Eric Elwood for introducing me. He said 'Look, you're well able.' I was kind of doubting myself at the start when I was only out of school (Marist Athlone) and he gave me that confidence and so did Nigel Carolan, the academy manager at Connacht.

"In a way, I've had to mature myself more rapidly than other people. I've enjoyed it all the way."

The reality for Connacht is that in order to keep their poster boy, they will need to match his rapid development. This season, it is a case of so far so good for Lam's side, who sit in the final qualifying spot for next season's Champions Cup with 10 games to go.

The Christmas interprovincials were a mixed bag, with a disappointing performance away to Leinster followed by a frustrating night at Ravenhill and what felt like a breakout performance against Munster on New Year's Day.

The next four weeks will shape their season, with eighth-placed Edinburgh coming to Galway this Friday and a trip to face the seventh-placed Scarlets interspersed with their pivotal European Challenge Cup games against Exeter Chiefs and La Rochelle.

While the secondary European competition is of little relevance this season, a quarter-final would add fresh impetus, but a ticket to the big time through the Guinness Pro12 is the big goal.

"It's great to see your team clicking," Henshaw reflected at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. "The difference is that it's a closer group, and mixed with youth and experience, and the clarity in the team is huge. Everyone knows what they're doing.

"Our main goal is to look at qualifying for the Champions Cup and then anything can happen after that. So I mean, it's just looking forward to finishing in the top six and that's what we're looking at.

"The way we're going it is a massive possibility. The middle part of the season is massive. We just need to get a result this week to separate us from the seventh position.

"We need to stay ahead of Scarlets. They're coming good at the moment. We have them after the break. It's going to be tight."

The thing for Connacht is to create an environment where a young player like Henshaw can develop and improve without needing to move to one of the bigger provinces.

There is a school of thought that feels that a transfer east would accelerate his development, but the cutting edge the Westerners showed in terrible conditions against Munster suggested otherwise.

Key to that is the importation of class from New Zealand in the form of Bundee Aki and Mils Muliaina.

The elder statesman's impact has been more keenly felt off the pitch, but former Chiefs tyro Aki has been a force of nature.

The win over Munster was just Henshaw and Aki's second game in tandem, which is a scary thought for opposition defences.

"He's quality, and so explosive as well," the Ireland centre said. "It seems he always breaks the first tackle, which creates good go-forward ball for us wider backs outside.

"He is a threat himself, so when he runs a decoy line, players will sit on him and it creates holes for the blindside wings and the 13. It's great to have him there as a No 12 and he's a good foil, a good distributor as well.

"He's a really good fella, a good character. Sometimes people say the weather in Galway affects the South Sea Islanders coming in. It's not him at all, or Mils. They look at home. Bundee is that type of guy, he throws himself into anything. He is fearless."

The imports have helped reduce the pressure on the shoulder of Connacht's homegrown heroes.

"There's more spotlight on Mils and Bundee. It takes it off myself and Kieran," Henshaw agreed.

"It's great to have that experience with us. Mils has definitely brought massive experience to the team and has turned it around big time. Having Bundee in there, he's a massive physical threat in the midfield and I'm just enjoying feeding off him."

Henshaw, of course, lives in Schmidt's world; a land where nobody is perfect no matter what they've achieved.

He may be coming off the back of an outstanding individual display against Munster, but as ever there is room for improvement.

"I'm playing quite well but I think there's more in the tank. I'm learning all the time and that's what I'm pretty pleased about," he said.

"I'm looking back at games saying it's not the perfect performance. I don't think you'll ever get the perfect performance.

"You're always looking at games saying 'I could have done this better or this better.' Or 'I did this okay, or I did this okay.' I think it's going well at the moment and I'm pleased with my rugby."

While the next month is a big one for Connacht, what follows promises to be the biggest month of Henshaw's career.

He was in camp throughout last season's Six Nations, shadowing O'Driscoll and stepping in when the retiring outside-centre's calf was playing up.

The Connacht man never played a minute of the successful campaign, but only injury can prevent him from making his Championship debut this season.

Before Christmas, he joined his international team-mates in Maynooth to begin looking ahead and Henshaw knows that the opening game against Italy in Rome won't be long coming around.

"The December camp was not looking back, it was looking forward as well to the Six Nations," he said.

"That's what we really prepped. There was a little bit of a review of November but it was more towards the Six Nations.

"It's going to creep up quite rapidly. Everyone has to be well prepared for it. Everyone prepared really well for November so I think if we do what we did there and give it 100pc we'll be ready for the Six Nations.

"I was pretty happy with (November), it was three really good performances by the team.

"It didn't go perfectly, it could have gone either way in certain aspects of the game against South Africa and Australia, but against South Africa we held out and obviously we won the second half of the Australia game.

"We're pretty happy with the three results but looking forward to the Six Nations now."

The influence of O'Driscoll prevails over Henshaw, even though the Leinster man has hung up his boots.

"He was invaluable; his experience with me. He just took me aside, one-to-one coaching and more so mentoring," he said.

"We'd sit down and have a coffee or sit down over the laptop and have a look at video analysis of training and then he'd shoot me a couple of texts for this season in terms of how the 13 role is done and how it's been going. He's been really good and he's helped me a lot."

The world's at Henshaw's feet even if sometimes if feels like he's got the weight of it on his shoulders. He and Connacht are on the rise and the province need to keep up if they want to keep him.

Irish Independent

Promoted articles

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport