Sport Rugby

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Paul Kimmage: Celebrity awaits Ireland's newest centre of attention Robbie Henshaw

Life is getting more interesting for the man chosen to inherit the Irish No 13 jersey

Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

'Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face. As soon as one is aware of being 'somebody,' to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his overanimation. One can either see or be seen.' - John Updike

It was a cold and dark evening in January and he was sitting in the restaurant at Carton House. We'd had our dinner interrupted twice by diners requesting his autograph but his mind was jumbled with questions and doubt.

Surgery had robbed him of the November internationals and the two pivotal Heineken Cup games against Clermont. Declan Kidney had stood him down as Ireland captain and replaced him with Jamie Heaslip. His sponsor, O2, had filmed a new ad in Wicklow and offered the lead to Jonathan Sexton.

It had been a bad winter for Brian O'Driscoll. He felt vulnerable and sore.

The 2013 Six Nations Championship was imminent and as they gathered in Carton House to prepare for the opening game in Wales, nothing stung more than the inclusion in the 39-man squad of a young, fresh-faced centre from Connacht.

Robbie Henshaw was six years old when O'Driscoll had made his debut for Ireland and was just a year out of school.

"Do you realise how old that makes me feel?" O'Driscoll laughed. "I mean . . . What do we have in common? What are we supposed to talk about? 'How did you get on in the Leaving?'"

I smiled and pretended I understood but, to be honest, I was struggling.

'Who's Robbie Henshaw?' I wondered.

We know now.

It's been a busy week for Irish rugby's new poster boy. On Tuesday he was on the Six-One news launching the Aviva Health Schools' Fitness Challenge; on Wednesday he held the back page of the Irish Independent ('Ireland's midfield battle hots up as Henshaw admits 'I want to play no 13') and a double-page feature inside; and on Friday he was the man we tuned in to watch when Connacht played Edinburgh at the Sportsground.

Okay, so that didn't quite work out.

He's 21 now, and pretty much nailed-on to start his first Six Nations for Ireland at outside centre. That was, of course, O'Driscoll's position when he started his first Five Nations campaign in February 2000. And he was also 21. And will we ever forget the 'Big O' that year against France and those three tries that transformed his life?

He has always rejected that, and spat the dummy once when the subject was raised: "Oh Jaysus!"

"How do I interpret 'Oh Jaysus?'" I asked.

"Well, I've done multiple interviews about it before but . . ."

He paused and thought about it for a moment: "What do you want to know?"

"I want to know about 'Oh Jaysus?'"

"It's my second most-talked-about thing after that fucking spear tackle, that's the 'Oh Jaysus,' he replied. "And okay, it's easier to talk about than the spear tackle obviously, because it was a great day and it definitely changed my life but . . ."

"You're tired of it," I suggested.

"No, it's just . . . it always comes back to those French tries - everything! It's always, 'Ah, that's when it all kicked off.' No it wasn't. It was the start of a different life for me, for sure, but I was motoring along nicely before that."

The nuts and bolts of fame have always interested me.

In the summer of '81, when I was 19 years old and dreamt only of winning bike races, I travelled to Waterford for the National Road Race Championships. Stephen Roche was a spectator that day. Six months before, he had made a sensational debut in Corsica as a professional and had returned for a brief visit in a gleaming white Peugeot (his sponsor) adorned with his name and a drop-dead gorgeous blonde wearing an outrageous mini-skirt.

We were two or three laps into the race when I spotted them by the side of the road and the scent was intoxicating. I thought: 'Wow! You absolute legend.' I wanted to be 'seen' like Stephen Roche; I wanted a car with my name on the doors and a blonde who turned heads.

It never quite worked out but I often wonder how I'd have survived it; if I'd have survived it; it's what interests me most about O'Driscoll. He got the cars and the girls and spent over a decade in our spotlights but was rarely seen. And his edge was never blunted.

We've read his diaries and his books and seen all the DVDs but the mystery prevails:

Who is he?

Who knows him?

What made him?

What drove him?

Maybe Henshaw knows.

"(Brian) was invaluable; his experience with me. He just took me aside, one-to-one coaching and more so mentoring," he told Ruaidhri O'Connor last week. "We'd sit down and have a coffee or sit down over the laptop and have a look at video analysis of training and then he'd shoot me a couple of texts for this season in terms of how the 13 role is done and how it's been going. He's been really good and he's helped me a lot."

We're learning more about Robbie Henshaw. He's got the agent and the sponsors, the talent and the looks and has started to play the celebrity game.

Rice or Pasta?

"Pasta."

Fruit or Veg?

"Veg."

Ice cream or chocolate?

"Chocolate."

Cinema or DVD?

"Cinema."

Netflix or cable?

"Netflix."

Facebook or LinkedIn?

"Facebook."

Twitter or WhatsApp?

"WhatsApp."

iPhone or Android?

"iPhone."

Beef or Salmon?

"Salmon."

In or out?

"In."

The Wire or The Bill?

"The Wire."

Chips or crisps?

"Crisps."

McDonald's or Burger King?

"McDonald's."

Up or down?

"Up."

Sun or slopes?

"Sun."

Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker?

"Harry Potter."

Neighbours or Home and Away?

"Home and Away."

Fish or Chips?

"Fish."

Wax or gel?

"Gel."

But the real game will be harder. How many times will he play for Ireland? How many years will he play? How does any kid follow an act like O'Driscoll?

We wish him well.

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