Saturday 21 October 2017

Henshaw's coming of age blows trembling English Rose away

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

He has a baby-soap complexion and the good manners of a young curate, but his chest is like the front of a coal barge.

There is a disarming presence to Robbie Henshaw that slowly, you sense, has begun to register with the outside world. Because his first Ireland try spoke of all the things that make people believe he can become just about anything that he chooses. The cognoscenti distilled it down, naturally, to the simple shorthand of "kick-chase".

Man of the match Robbie Henshaw after the RBS Six Nations match against England
Man of the match Robbie Henshaw after the RBS Six Nations match against England

Yet it had so much to do with wit, clarity of thought and, maybe above anything, a kid having the gumption to back himself.

He called the move, you see. "I spotted the space in behind Alex Goode because I was up with the line," he smiles. "I just caught Conor Murray's eye and we had practised it a couple of times where if we did have a penalty advantage, we would possibly put in a kick over the top and have someone chase it.

"I didn't go too mad in case I'd give it away. I just caught eyes and gave him the nod to put it in behind."

England, essentially, taken out then by a bullet with a silencer.

All week they had spoken of knowing intimately what Ireland would inflict upon them, but knowledge doesn't guarantee protection against a Joe Schmidt team. Nothing does. Ireland's tenth Test win on the bounce spoke of a group all about selling the message now that this era is new, this is different.

Dialogue

Henshaw has become a poster boy for that psyche. The programme editor has finally desisted from under-selling his bulk (6'3" and still rising; 100kg) and it was interesting that in all the giddy post-game dialogue yesterday, people no longer seemed inclined to throw his name about as some kind of trite addendum to the story of Brian O'Driscoll.

Henshaw's life in professional rugby has been stapled to a nation's terror that birds would come toppling out of the sky once the great man departed. The debate wasn't so much of succession as a need to start lighting candles.

But Henshaw has been a star on every rung of the ladder and, finally, now seems set to become the story as distinct from a consolation prize.

Schmidt is too shrewd to swamp a young man in flattery, but he palpably knows what he is dealing with here.

"I just thought his tackle count was massive for us, he made 31 tackles in the first two games and it's very, very seldom that a midfield player is your top tackler," smiled the Irish coach. "It's usually a back-row and that's no offence to our back-row because our back-row's chopped and changed a lot from game to game so they haven't had the opportunity that Robbie has had to accumulate that many tackles.

"In 160 minutes, to accumulate 31 tackles and the tackles being top-quality tackles as well the bulk of them... He certainly made a few more today. So, the thing I'd say about Robbie is that he's an incredibly understated kid, he's quietly spoken and just gets on and delivers on the pitch. He showed that again today."

Schmidt rightly paid tribute to the role O'Driscoll has had in shaping the kid as a professional, the two often reviewing games together last season when Henshaw was a Six Nations squad player. "I think that learning, that apprenticeship that he served, has borne a bit of fruit this season," said Schmidt. "And I think there probably is a bit of fruit on the tree!"

The game today is so homicidally intense, you sometimes sense it should be played in a prison yard. Midfield can be like downtown Hanoi at rush-hour, except without the empathy of like minds programmed to keep moving. Traffic doesn't flow, it spits and bucks and, invariably, gets bounced back in the direction from which it's come. Beauty seems a quaint notion in this environment. The collision is god. Armageddon in a lined rectangle.

You play the referee as much as the opponent here. You stretch things. We're not quite talking lawlessness of course, but rules are interpreted as challenges, not stipulations. England reckon Ireland, maybe, "bend" them at the breakdown. Wales, clearly, consider our use of the choke tackle an unscrupulous tactic.

Yesterday, England spent more time offside than a drunken sailor on shore leave. They made no apologies. As James Haskell put if so flatly afterwards: "It's about playing right on the edge and seeing what you can get away with."

At 21, Henshaw could be forgiven finding such terms of engagement daunting. Yet the opposite applies. He seems genuinely energised in a climate of controlled frenzy. "The physical side of it I quite enjoy," he grinned, a few red blemishes beneath his left eye the only discernible evidence of damage absorbed.

"I like putting in hits although I missed a couple today and I need to work on that certainly for the Welsh game. I think stepping into it, I know what the physicality is about now. After the French and Italian games, I know what's expected of me - and certainly after the South African and Australian games (in November) too. I'm just really looking forward now to taking another step forward."

England believed they were ready for an aerial bombardment, but Ireland's strength in the air is what it is because of the courage of those chasing. "The aerial game, we as backs worked off it during the week and knew what was expected of us," said Henshaw (below).

"And I think the kick-chase is a really, really good tactic of ours. Obviously it puts pressure on the opposition's back three and I think with our back three as well, we have three aerially-dominant players in Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo and Rob Kearney.

"So I think it's really a good strategy, a strong point of ours, that we look to put that pressure on other teams. It's a test."

One that Goode was doomed to fail the moment Henshaw made that eye contact with his scrum-half. The sound of him sprinting must have been like a hissing grenade to the England full-back whose body language became instantly defensive as that Murray kick descended in the 53rd minute. Thereafter, he might as well have been dressed in a ball gown for all the difficulty he presented Ireland's number 12.

"I was a bit shocked after," grinned Henshaw, knowing instantly what the score had just done to England. "It was a special moment and hopefully tonight I'll have another look at it. It's pretty special to me to get my first try at home... and against England as well!

"I had a chance in the first half too but just got tap-tackled. I had rolled my ankle just before that play, so I wasn't sprinting one hundred per cent. It was still sore at that time. I think if we hadn't got a try, we would have been under the pump towards the end."

How high can this kid soar?

"Well, he's physically very impressive" said Tommy O'Donnell. "He's over a hundred kilos and he's got incredible explosive power. He attacks the gain line. And he's just very level-headed and secure under a high ball.

"It's incredible to unearth that kind of talent at such a young age. And to be so solid... there's no airs or graces with him. He's just a down-to-earth, incredibly physical guy who loves rugby and loves the craic."

A kid who could be king.

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