Thursday 22 March 2018

2016 Ones to watch: Robbie Henshaw - Will our great rugby hope cross the Shannon for sake of his career?

Big decision ahead: Robbie Henshaw
Big decision ahead: Robbie Henshaw
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

When Robbie Henshaw first arrived at his school, Marist College in Athlone, GAA was just as significant to him as rugby in the grand scheme of things.

He would go on to represent Westmeath at minor level in GAA in 2010 and 2011, but rugby ultimately became his main preoccupation.

After last year's Six Nations and the World Cup, he is now a fixture in the Irish rugby team, and a lot of responsibility rests on the broad shoulders of the affable 22-year-old.

After a glorious first half of the year, when we won the Six Nations, Irish rugby is going through a difficult period.

Ireland, along with England, were the great flops in the World Cup in the autumn, with the boys in green dumped out by Argentina in the quarter-final. Leinster and Munster under-performed towards the end of last year, leaving a sense of foreboding about the future of the national team.

Amid all these troubles, Henshaw remains one of the few bright spots, coming from an unlikely province, Connacht.

While Leinster and Munster have floundered, Henshaw's team have thrived in recent months, and went into the new year in second place in the Pro-12 League Table.

Henshaw's star quality has inevitably led to speculation that he will seek the bright lights with a bigger team. Connacht coach Pat Lam has reiterated his hope that Henshaw will remain with the province after his contract runs out at the end of the season, but has said he knows the star centre has a tough decision to make in the coming months.

In 2015, the mannerly student at NUI Galway was named the IRUPA Young Player of the Year for the third year in a row, Connacht Rugby Players' Player of the Year and Connacht Rugby Fans' Player of the Year.

His rugby prowess comes as no surprise, as his dad Tony and uncle Davie were both handy players who lined out for club and province in their time.

Robbie was always sports mad, and played rugby, soccer and Gaelic with six teams. His dad coached his rugby team from under-8s to under-19s, and they have always been very close.

While Robbie always shone at Marist College (and still trains at the gym there when he's at home), his dad, who now manages him and attends every match, would never have dreamed that his talented son would have progressed this far so fast.

In 2012 he was already a rising star at schools level, and captained Marist College to win the Connacht Schools Cup.

His rise to the top was as meteoric as that of Brian O'Driscoll.

Only a year after leaving school, he made his senior debut for Ireland against the United States on June 8, 2013, starting at fullback at the age of 19. Robbie was still keen to go to university after school with the level-headed attitude that it only takes one injury to end a career.

It wasn't easy last year combining studies with rugby training, but the university authorities have been keen to facilitate him in whatever way they could.

He completed the second year over two years, and they have given him a few years to complete his third year of a Geography and Economics degree.

The 22-year-old is a box-office figure in Irish rugby now after a brilliant World Cup campaign. He seems to have ruled out a move to France, although it is believed he has received offers to go to other clubs. If he goes to Leinster or Munster, it would probably be at the end of the season.

Henshaw truly came of age in the World Cup. After a hamstring problem ruled him out at the start, he returned to play against Italy and took the France game by the scruff of the neck, putting in a phenomenal display. Rugby pundits said he was consistently one of Ireland's most frequent and effective tacklers and carriers, with his importance to the team growing with every match.

Ireland, after a difficult few months, will look to a maturing Henshaw to take on a leadership role in the Six Nations Championship. Despite the rewards that come with professional success, the Irish centre has not forgotten his roots. Just days after the World Cup, he was back at his old school in Athlone helping out with the coaching.

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