From Senior Cup to World Cup in three special years
Robbie Henshaw has long been tipped for the top and now he is fulfilling every bit of that potential, writes Cian Tracey
On a cold September morning in 2011, a group of Marist College students and rugby coaches gathered together in a classroom.
The aim of the meeting was to decipher the interest levels in the Senior Cup for the coming year and subsequently lay down goals.
They needn't have bothered with the assembly, though, as the players' intentions were already crystal clear after what had been a promising previous year.
It had been 35 years since the Athlone school had claimed their only Senior Cup title, but now they had a talismanic captain who wasn't about to follow the usual script of a schools rugby player.
When Robbie Henshaw first rocked up to Marist College, GAA was just as important to him as rugby.
He would go on to represent Westmeath at minor level in 2010 and 2011, but rugby soon became his main passion.
Marist College has long been renowned for its GAA exploits, but in recent times, they have become a rugby force within Connacht.
That is due in no small part to Henshaw, as anyone who has tracked his progress from an early age will attest, but the 21-year-old is keen to praise the influence of Michael Loftus, the man who coached him throughout his school days.
"Mick has been the driving force behind rugby in the school for as long as I can remember," Henshaw points out.
"He has always been hugely influential and he constantly challenges guys to improve themselves and the standards within the school.
"GAA was probably considered to be bigger at one point, but in recent years, rugby is definitely on a par with it. It's growing every year and that's proven by the fact that we won two Senior Cups in a row (2012 and 2013)."
Henshaw knew that the time would come when he had to make a decision as to which sport to concentrate on and he acknowledges that students will face similar dilemmas this year as they embark on their own journey.
"It was for the love of the sport," he says of his decision to choose rugby over GAA.
"I knew we had a really good side building within the school. You have to follow your gut and make the decisions based around your own personality.
"When I was in second or third year, I started taking rugby more seriously. When I saw the buzz around the place on cup days, I knew it was something that I wanted to be involved in myself. Those days in the school are unbelievable. Everyone is up for it."
Henshaw, a natural born leader, was selected to captain the 2012 Senior Cup team.
Loftus would often name him to start at full-back, but it soon became apparent that he was attempting to put opponents off what was his secret weapon - a devastating outside-centre.
It didn't remain a secret for long, however, as Henshaw shone at every opportunity and he was duly selected for his first Irish Schools cap against Scotland in November 2011.
It was the first time a player from Marist or, indeed, from an Athlone-based school had been picked at that level.
"We met in a classroom in early September, just to see what kind of numbers we had and who was interested in playing. We knew something special was growing from the previous year, though," he recalls of the aforementioned meeting.
"We knew guys would have another year under the belt. We had a good side that was only going to get better, so we basically just decided to give it a crack. Everyone drove it on 100pc and that was important."
Marist's year got off to an ideal start as they beat Sligo Grammar in the league final and Henshaw agrees that his side gained massive confidence from that success. They would renew their rivalry with Sligo at a later stage.
"Sligo Grammar were a really good side, but we showed what we were really capable of that day and it gave us the confidence within ourselves to go even further," he fondly remembers.
"It was a real eye-opener that we could go on and actually win trophies. It left us hungry for more and that was ideal going into the cup."
Marist were soon installed as cup favourites, which for a school that had gone 35 years without winning the competition, could have been a major burden.
"The favourites tag didn't really come into our mindset," Henshaw insists.
"We were confident in our own ability and that's what really paid off in the end. Everyone played their role."
Having impressed on their way to the final, Marist were once again pitted against their old rivals Sligo Grammar in the cup decider.
Henshaw sparkled in a 12-0 victory and he maintains that it is a memory that will stay with him forever.
"It was a close enough game, but we got two really well worked tries in the first half that put us in a good position. We held out in the end and it was just such a special feeling," he says.
"The celebrations were brilliant. It was an unbelievable day and if I could go back and relive it all again, I would.
"We knew how much it meant to the school, even before we left for the game. The support was great.
"All of the teachers and students lined up and clapped us out which meant a lot. It was a really warm send-off.
"We were given a civic reception in Athlone afterwards as well, which was brilliant."
Henshaw was soon fast tracked into the Connacht academy, which nowadays isn't all that unusual.
Making your full international debut a year after leaving school and being declared the natural heir to Brian O'Driscoll is an altogether different matter, however.
"Winning the Senior Cup really helped with the transition. It gave me the confidence to know that I was good enough to compete with guys who were older than me. Even when I got into the senior side, I still took a lot from having won a Senior Cup medal," he says.
"Obviously, the standard is much higher, but players can definitely look back on schools rugby and see how it's helped them progress to where they are now."
As this year's schools cup competitions get under way, another player will undoubtedly be tipped for the top.
For Henshaw, it has been a mere three years since he was held aloft by his team-mates in the Sportsground with the Senior Cup.
He is now an absolute certainty to be included in Joe Schmidt's World Cup squad, but what would that 19-year old Marist captain have said if that notion had been put to him then?
"I would have told you that you were mad," he smiles.
"It's all been a dream come true and to play at the World Cup this year would be brilliant. I'm very grateful for everyone who has helped me along the way and now it's up to me to keep pushing on and continuing in the right direction."
Henshaw has never known any other direction than the one to the very top.