Returning Henshaw key to Connacht's hopes of pulling off upset
IT is saying something that in the week when Connacht announced the departure of one of only five All Blacks to win 100 caps, Mils Muliaina was not the most important name listed on Pat Lam's team-sheet yesterday.
That man is Robbie Henshaw (below) who, at merely 21 and veritably in his infancy compared to his great full-back team-mate, will nevertheless remain literally and figuratively central to the province's slim chances of advancing to the Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final in Gloucester this season.
While Muliaina decamps to Italy next season after making an underwhelming impression, Henshaw's future remains integral to the province's future good health.
At the start of the season, club captain John Muldoon stressed that Connacht needed to start becoming familiar with the business of winning trophies if they were to retain the Six Nations title winner.
This remains the only silverware available to a side who also desperately crave qualification to the elite European tier next term.
Henshaw's return will undoubtedly help his side to achieve the success that may help to prolong his career out west.
"Robbie is nice and refreshed," says Muldoon. "He got a couple of days off and I'm sure he badly needed it, mentally and physically.
"He's a massive player for Connacht rugby, he's done outstandingly well for Ireland over the last couple of weeks and he'll bring a huge boost to us coming back. Robbie is Robbie, he'll fit right back in."
While Gloucester director of rugby David Humphreys, eyeing a trophy in his first season despite a vastly underwhelming Premiership campaign, issues the pat refusal about focusing on one player, the hosts will be aware that closing Henshaw's threat will slam a number of doors shut.
"I don't think you make specific plans for any player," says Humphreys, who left Ulster in controversial circumstances last summer and whose side are long odds-on (1/4) to win this tie.
"They have threats across their team but I remember watching Robbie a few years ago in Ravenhill when he was the standout player and we all knew that he would be successful and make it. Did I think he would be as successful as he has been so quickly? Probably not but I don't think anyone could have ever foreseen it happening that quickly.
"But he's been absolutely magnificent this year in what he has brought to the Ireland team, the Connacht team and the biggest compliment you could give him is that he has filled a hole in the Irish centres that everybody wondered how it could possibly be filled.
"You saw over the course of the autumn internationals and into the Six Nations that Ireland are now building a team with depth across every position and Robbie is a key part of that."
Lam has made four changes to his side led by Henshaw's return alongside the competition's top try scorer, Danie Poolman.
Tiernan O'Halloran shifts to the right wing to facilitate Muliaina who is reinstated at full-back after missing out last week with injury.
Up front, South African Quinn Roux is named in a second-row with Aly Muldowney. There's also a reshuffle in the back-row as Galway man Andrew Browne, whose new deal for next season was announced this week, starts at blindside flanker.
Replacements JP Cooney, James Connolly and Ian Porter have all been called into the match-day squad, while Craig Ronaldson has recovered from the illness that ruled him out late of last week's game to take his place on the bench, where he may have to spring sooner rather than later if Jack Carty's struggles continue.
"Playing a quarter-final in any competition is massive and to be involved in knock-out rugby at this stage of the season is what we want," says Lam.
"It's a huge challenge going into the cauldron that is Kingsholm against a side with quality internationals and a lot of experience.
"But we have worked hard to get here and with a home semi up for grabs, we'll face the challenge head on as a team."
Gloucester's beefy pack, spearheaded by fetcher supreme Matt Kvesic, will help them prevail.
Gloucester - S McColl; C Sharples, B Meakes, Billy Twelvetrees (c), J May; J Hook, G Laidlaw; D Murphy, R Hibbard, J Afoa, T Savage, T Palmer, S Kalafamoni, M Kvesic, G Evans. Reps: D Dawiduik, N Wood, S Puafisi, J Hudson, R Moriarty, D Robson, B Burns, H Purdy.
Connacht - M Muliaina; T O'Halloran, D Poolman, R Henshaw, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You, Q Roux, A Muldowney, A Browne, E Masterson, J Muldoon (c). Reps: S Delahunt, JP Cooney, F Bealham, M Kearney, J Connolly, I Porter, C Ronaldson, D Leader.
Ref - M Raynal (France)
Gloucester v Connacht, Live, Sky Sports 2, 7.35