Monday 22 July 2019

'We're not like robots' - Henshaw enjoying Leinster freedom ahead of crunch Clermont clash

Robbie Henshaw is expecting a difficult day at the office against a fired-up Clermont side

Robbie Henshaw celebrates his selection for the Lions tour during the week. Photo: Sportsfile
Robbie Henshaw celebrates his selection for the Lions tour during the week. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Robbie Henshaw's JFK moment will be easily remembered. Unlike the rest of us, who randomly just happen to be somewhere when something momentous occurs - and it stays in our heads forever - his was choreographed. But nonetheless enjoyable despite the circumstances.

So, as was the case south and north of his location last Wednesday at midday, the Leinster lads took a break from their working day to tune in to the announcement of the Lions squad for New Zealand this summer.

"I was in the canteen area watching it with the majority of the squad," he says. "It was pretty tense. There was a big roar each time a Leinster name was called out. It was an enjoyable type of atmosphere. It was brilliant. And yeah (for me) it was done and dusted early. It was a relief to be honest."

Thereafter, there were others to be considered: so, delight at the inclusion of Jared Payne, whose knowledge of all things Kiwi, Henshaw reckons, will be invaluable to the tourists. As for his Leinster partner, Garry Ringrose, it's a long road that has no turn. When the casualties start clocking up he has every chance of making the trip.

In Henshaw's case, he was always going to be in on the ground floor on this trip. It helped that he was part of the Irish raiding party to Chicago last November - a try-scorer on the only team to beat the All Blacks in 2016 - but even if Ireland had been beaten out the gate that day their centre was nailed on to be a Lion. A week ago in these pages Munster's Niall Scannell spoke about his mission to provide momentum on both sides of the ball. Henshaw is a different man in a different position, but he illustrates perfectly the value of that.

You would imagine Warren Gatland was enamoured of the way Ireland use him in the last quarter of the pitch. Any time Joe Schmidt's side would have an attacking scrum on either 15-metre line, Henshaw would be used to carry. Expect more of the same on tour.

He is so much more though than a human Pacman, a voracious eater of metres. People forget Henshaw learned his trade as a fullback. He can play ball as well as carry it. And Leinster give him the freedom to do just that.

"Yeah, I like the distribution side to playing 12 as well and particularly, sometimes, in the outer channels," he says. "(Against Ospreys) I got a chance to give Seán Cronin a bit of space in the outside channels, which took me back to days of being at 15, and out on the edges.

"So it depends where you are on the pitch. As you mentioned, I did a lot of hard yards for the England game because we were playing a different kind of rugby to what we play here (in Leinster). But to be honest I love playing as a second ball player as well, so to be able to do the two is a bonus, I suppose."

Leinster's system relies more on awareness of what the opposing defence is doing rather than on a set of prescriptive plays. In a game where players tend to like joining the dots, this may not be as appealing as it sounds.

"Well, to be honest, you have to understand that we're not like robots," Henshaw says. "You have to be able to play with your eyes open. That's what I was coached as a youngster, to be able to play off the cuff. So I think that's that style of play: when you're not structured; it's not like two phases, three phases, and kick the ball. It's just keep the ball moving and seeing what the defence is showing you, seeing what pictures are in front of you.

"You just have to be chirping into the ear of those inside and outside, telling them where the space is and where you're looking for the offload - just calling your name and saying: 'offload left, offload right'; let them know where the space is, let them know where you are. We do focus on being clear in our chat - not just shouting things - you have to be clear with your chat."

That won't be easy this afternoon. Lyon is not the Stade Marcel Michelin but the Clermont fans will make it feel that way, as they did when the teams met in the Heineken Cup semi-final in Bordeaux in 2012. That remains one of the greatest contests in the storied history of European competition.

Leinster will bring just four of the match squad they had that day - Clermont will have the same. Both Henshaw and his opposite number, Remi Lamerat, will be new to the occasion - if not each other.

"Yeah I think he's probably one of their talismen in the middle of the park. Definitely, playing against him in the Aviva with France, he was a handful.

"He's a strong runner and he's a tough guy to bring down. You have to really get your body in the tackle. He's a good passer; he's deceptive; he has good hands and he's able to put guys in space as well. So he's not just a one-man show: he doesn't just hit it up, and he's not just a crash-ball player."

And Clermont, does he expect them to load all their previous frustrations in this competition into a furious 80-minute storm? In four of the last five seasons they have made the last four at least: twice beaten in the semis; twice in the final.

"Yeah I think so. They're chomping at the bit as well and they've been pretty close to winning it but slipped up a few times. So they're used to playing on this stage. We've looked at the type of atmosphere it's going to be as well so it'll be pretty intense, and it's going to be loud. We probably won't be able to hear each other so we need to read each other's body language in the stadium because the noise levels apparently . . . I've never experienced playing Clermont but from what I've heard it's unbelievably loud. I think it's going to be a great game so we need to do our best to get the win. It's going to be very tough."

When Robbie Henshaw checks his phone messages on an average day he expects there to be something from his Athlone clan, wondering when he'll be home to take part in a music session. A handy man on the accordion and fiddle, Christy Moore would be one of his heroes.

Finding the time however has been an issue. He managed to squeeze in a few days' break in Dubai when given time off from the Leinster versus Connacht game last weekend, and he also got to catch up with some of the Buccaneers lads who were celebrating their runaway return to the top flight of the All-Ireland League. But there's still a fair bit of socialising to be done. It will be a while before the door opens on that one.

ASM Clermont Auvergne: S Spedding; D Strettle, A Rougerie, R Lamerat, N Abendanon; C Lopez, M Parra; R Chaume, B Kayser, D Zirakashvili, A Iturria, S Vahaamahina, D Chouly, P Yato, F Lee.

Leinster: J Carbery; F McFadden, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa; J Sexton, L McGrath; J McGrath, R Strauss, T Furlong, D Toner, H Triggs, R Ruddock, D Leavy, J Conan.

Referee: N Owens (Wales) Clermont Auvergne v Leinster Sky Sports 3, 3.0

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