Robbie Henshaw reveals the advice Anthony Foley gave him before his international debut
Published 18/10/2016 | 02:30
When Robbie Henshaw was preparing to make his Ireland debut as a 19-year-old in Houston, Texas he sought out the advice of a 62-cap veteran.
The United States Eagles team that the lay in wait were determined to claim a tier-one scalp by beating up a diminished Irish side, and the teenage full-back knew that the big men would come looking for him.
So, he spoke to Anthony Foley, who he had played under for the Ireland Wolfhounds a year previously and who was manning the defence as part of Les Kiss' coaching staff.
Foley's advice wasn't flowery, but it was practical.
"Put a hole in somebody," he told the precocious talent from Athlone, who has been doing just that ever since.
Like everyone else, Henshaw was stunned when he learned of his former coach's premature death on Sunday.
When he arranged to do a press call to launch the Aviva Minis series, he could never have imagined he'd be discussing such a grim and unfathomable topic, but he did his best to put the loss into words.
"He was a coach who was straight up. He firmly believed that if you did your job. . . he was a really good forwards coach and really good ruck coach," he said.
"He worked a bit with me on my defence and my first-up hits. He was a really good coach and I enjoyed playing under him. He was always calm as well. I only played under him twice but I loved playing under him.
"I remember him helping me when I was smaller, he helped me impose myself physically before the American game and the Canadian game.
"He helped me in terms of my tackle technique and getting my body height right and putting a hole in someone as he used to say, putting my shoulder through them. That's what I remember.
"It's a tragic loss for Munster and Irish rugby. Axel was a gentleman."
Foley was always an admirer of Henshaw's and did his best to sign the Connacht back when his contract came up for renewal.
The 23-year-old chose Leinster instead and he is settling into life on the east coast well now that he has overcome his knee injury and donned the blue jersey twice.
He's hungry for more as he looks to get to full tilt in time for the All Blacks in Chicago and he is keen to play against his old team on Saturday week.
Word has yet to come down from on high, but he hopes Joe Schmidt agrees.
"I haven't been told yet but I'd probably like to play because there's two games under the belt now but I'd probably like to get as much game time as I can to prove my fitness in the race to get on the plane for Chicago," he said.
"So yeah, I think having more game time under the belt would definitely benefit me and give me a better chance of hopefully getting on that plane."
Getting on the plane won't be a problem for a player who is now one of the first names on the Ireland team-sheet. If fit, Henshaw will start against the world champions.
On his last media engagement, he rubbished talk that his old mates were in decline and promised that the Pro12 champions would bounce back from their poor start.
On Saturday, they proved him right as they beat Toulouse on the kind of raucous night in Galway that one imagines must tug at his heart strings.
But the Ireland star doesn't see it that way. He missed the live broadcast as it took place directly after his own game against Castres and, when he watched the highlights, he did so with a clinical eye and was simply happy for his old friends.
Rather than look back, he is firmly focused on his own game.
"I'm happy enough but I've loads to improve on," is his assessment of his first two outings in blue.
"There's a bit of rustiness still there in terms of me but it's just great to be back and no issues, thank God.
"There's more to come from us as a unit as well, we had a good performance at the weekend but it got scrappy in parts and that was kind of expected.
"But listen it's been a good return for me and I'm enjoying being involved in the set-up and just getting the chance to get back out and put together some performances."
Although he's the new man in town, he finds himself in the strange position of being the senior man among the inside backs in Johnny Sexton's absence.
The back three of Rob Kearney, Zane Kirchner and Isa Nacewa have plenty of experience, but alongside Henshaw last weekend were the uncapped trio of Luke McGrath (23), Joey Carbery (20) and Garry Ringrose (21).
"It was a little bit strange," Henshaw conceded. "I haven't been that vocal in Leinster because I've just been focusing on getting back but yeah, I'm starting to build it up a little bit more now. I'm a little bit more vocal on the pitch now and try and help the lads out as best I can.
"Defence is one of my strongest parts of my game. In defence, I'm looking to get off the line and lead by putting in big hits.
"It's funny being one of the older, mature guys in the backline and still being 23. It's great, it's a change for me and my rugby and I'm looking forward to good times ahead.
"It's a thing I'm still trying to get a lot better at because when you're blowing out your lungs and you're trying to talk and shout, it's a tough thing. In the action as well, it's tough to keep your communication up, so you have to keep reinforcing it in training.
"It has to be clear chat, it's not just shouting for the sake of it. It's definitely part of my game that I'm getting better at.
"Guys like Isa Nacewa are unbelievable at it. It makes the game a whole lot easier if you have someone barking in your ear all the time."
The three of his younger colleagues are now on Ireland's radar, with his centre partner Ringrose likely to make his debut next month.
Eoin Reddan's retirement means McGrath, who played in an uncapped game against the Barbarians last year, has moved up the scrum-half pecking order, while Carbery was in camp earlier this month.
As someone who bided his time before getting a chance to establish himself in the Ireland set-up, Henshaw believes they'll benefit from the experience of being involved.
"The more they are involved in camp the better," he said.
"Joe did that with me as well when I was at their age, brought me in and got me involved in the set-up, showing you everything it takes for international training.
"It is a massive step-up and I think Joey and Garry definitely benefited from it. They know the level they need to be at coming into camp with us. It is a different level to provincial."
Although they have been in camp together, Henshaw and Ringrose had never done any reps as a partnership before linking up at Leinster.
Despite that, there are already signs that the partnership will grow into something special.
"Myself and Garry have a good relationship now," Henshaw said. "We're sitting down and going through bits. We analyse areas where we can do better, get good gains from looking at opposition and strengthen our defence as well.
"We've got two games under our belt. It's getting better and better.
"The two of us are still learning which is positive. We haven't been challenged massively yet in the backline. I'm learning from him, feeding off him and, I suppose, he's feeding off me. There's more to come. You'll probably see that in the next two weeks."
Montpellier and Connacht will pose the Leinster midfield different sorts of problems, but the ultimate test is coming in November when Ireland take on New Zealand twice.
They have already begun preparing for the clash with the world champions in Chicago in less than three weeks' time, but Henshaw says Schmidt's side need to get themselves right rather than spending too much time obsessing about their illustrious opposition.
"We have one eye on how they're playing and every player has been told to analyse their games and watch the Rugby Championship," he said.
"But we have to focus on ourselves as well, because if our shape isn't right, if our systems aren't right we'll get beaten out the gate.
"We'll have to do our job 100pc if we're to be there come 80 minutes. We need to have ourselves right first before anything else."
It's a daunting challenge for Henshaw and his team-mates. Revisiting Foley's advice might be a start.