Star of west Henshaw has world at his feet
WHEN Connacht launched their 'Grassroots to Green Shirts' youth development initiative during the Six Nations, one of their long-term goals was to have a man from the west represent the Lions.
A week later, Keith Wood was singling Robbie Henshaw out as his 'bolter' for this summer's tour to Australia, somewhat ahead of the province's schedule.
It is easy to forget that this 19-year-old has played only 22 senior games in his rugby career to date. After just four of those matches, his coach Eric Elwood was telling his parents that their "special" son would play for Ireland.
In November he was name-checked by Declan Kidney, who then called him into his squad for the Six Nations, during which he made his Wolfhounds and U-20 debuts.
Considering the extent of his ambition at the start of the season was to get into the Eagles side and make his Connacht debut, the former Westmeath minor footballer is well ahead of schedule.
No wonder, then, that the Athlone native admits he's struggling to keep his feet on the ground. It's only a year since he was captaining Marist College to the Connacht Senior Schools Cup title.
"I approached the season looking to keep the head down and try and get a few caps with the Connacht team and play a bit with the Eagles; that was my main plan," he admitted. "It is hard to keep the head down, I've been aware of what Keith Wood said and that would be the icing on the cake if it was to happen.
"I wouldn't be thinking that far ahead now, but it is great that people like Keith are thinking that about me. I'm just keeping my head down."
As for Elwood's remarks? "It was pressure added on to me and I kind of laughed it off afterwards," he said. "It was a nice compliment to take from a senior coach."
Having put that onus on the youngster, the next job for Connacht was securing his services for the future.
Their website still lists him among the first-year academy players, but after Munster and Ulster both sounded him out, the western province had to move fast to keep him in Galway.
Henshaw committed to the club until 2015 on a full contract and said that leaving was never really an option.
"It's my home province and I want to stay here for a few more years; development is a big thing as well. I didn't want to move from my home province to an outside club where I'm not familiar with it, where I wouldn't know anyone," he explained.
"I want to develop, I'm enjoying my rugby here and nothing would have changed my mind."
Having burst on to the team with Connacht, the next step for the teenager was to rub shoulders with the senior squad at Carton House. Any awe had to be put to one side by the time he hit the pitch, however, as the welcome mat was rolled in and the real stuff began.
"It's been a massive achievement for me to be in the same squad as those guys that I looked up to, like Brian O'Driscoll, and I really enjoyed it," he said. "It was a big step compared to this time last year. At the start it was hard, but I had to stop thinking about it and play my own game and keep improving, keep going.
"You definitely have to earn their respect. When I was there they welcomed me with open arms, but once you're there, you have to perform 100pc all the time and be totally professional in how you go about training and everything you do on the pitch. It was a little bit daunting, but I enjoyed everything."
Henshaw is at the centre of Connacht's drive to promote from within, which is encapsulated in their 'Grassroots to Green Shirts' campaign that appeals for funding from the public to help them develop their stars of the future.
Elwood has blooded plenty of young talent in recent years and incoming coach Pat Lam will be expected to develop the province's youngsters rather than recruit heavily from outside. But it is one of those imports who Henshaw believes is having the biggest effect on his game.
"Definitely Dan Parks has been the biggest influence, he's been my mentor," Henshaw said. "He would approach me and ask, 'are you alright for a chat, is there anything on your mind?' He's always available for a chat and he's been great."
The big losers in the Henshaw story are the footballers of Westmeath, with whom he played minor for the last two years.
Although they are flying high in Division 2 of the Allianz National League, the former midfielder has no regrets about turning his back on Gaelic games.
"When I was younger it was a bit of both, I used to play rugby on a Saturday and Gaelic on a Sunday. It was hard to choose between them," he recalled.
"I played a lot of minor football with Westmeath, I had two seasons with them and enjoyed it, but I went the rugby way after playing with the Buccaneers and winning the U-19 All-Ireland with the club. That and playing with Connacht as well, those factors swayed my mind.
"It was the success I was having and I was enjoying it more than I was with Gaelic. I love the physicality of the game. The high ball links in with Gaelic football and rugby, the catching, passing and kicking – you utilise the two games and the different skills.
"I drifted towards rugby because I was enjoying it more because of that physicality. That changed my mind."
Rather than looking forward to the inter-county championship, Henshaw's mind is on the summer tour.
It's just a case of which one he'll go on: the Lions in Australia, Ireland in the USA and Canada or the U-20s in France? The possibilities appear endless for Connacht's rising star.