Monday 9 December 2019

Robbie Henshaw move will help him to fulfil his potential

Robbie Henshaw in action for Ireland during their defeat against France. Photo: Getty
Robbie Henshaw in action for Ireland during their defeat against France. Photo: Getty
Robbie Henshaw. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Yesterday would have played out over and over in Robbie Henshaw's mind as he weighed up whether leaving Connacht for Leinster was the right move for him.

Yesterday's statement from the western province confirmed that they will lose their prized asset at the age of 22 and, while there was no mention of his destination, he is expected to join Leo Cullen's men next season.

The Ireland centre has been in demand for some time. He turned down advances from all three rival provinces when he last put pen to paper on a two-year deal with the westerners in 2014 and even during the first 12 months of that term he faced questions about a move to Leinster at the end of last season.

That didn't come to pass, but despite the feeling that the move has been inevitable the reality is that the player, his family and his advisors have been torn over whether this is the right decision

Henshaw knows he owes Connacht a huge debt of gratitude. Nigel Carolan spotted his undoubted potential as a teenager and offered him a route into the professional game via the province's burgeoning academy, while Eric Elwood backed him to such an extent that he gave him his debut as a teenager and within weeks was hailing him as a future Ireland international.

Under Pat Lam, the prospect has become a player and has delivered during a relative golden era for the western province.

Whenever they claimed a scalp, be it Toulouse, Leinster or Munster, the boyish face on the broad shoulders was at the heart of the action; leading from the front in defence and attack. As a kid, he won Connacht titles with Buccaneers and Marist and was part of the Buccs U-19s side who claimed an All-Ireland title.

His father and uncle, who along with family friend Michael Cosgrave have negotiated on his behalf, played for the province and the family are steeped in Connacht rugby; always have been.

The province themselves knew they had something special. Mils Muliaina added some international glamour to proceedings, but in Henshaw they had a home-grown superstar in waiting.

Joe Schmidt recognised it enough to groom him as Brian O'Driscoll's successor and then switch his focus to the No 12 jersey when the time came. At the World Cup, he was Ireland's best back despite coming into the tournament with hamstring trouble and already this Six Nations he has proven himself in a collision-fest with Jamie Roberts.

Injury and form permitting, he will almost certainly become a Lion in New Zealand next year and when he does there will be pride across Connacht that one of their own made it, even if the province in brackets next to his name will say Leinster.

That's because, when the crunch came, the hardened professional within Henshaw knew that he has a better chance of becoming the best No 12 in the world by moving provinces.

Last week, his old mentor O'Driscoll asked whether he was learning anything at the Sportsground when he wasn't on international duty.


While accepting Lam has a huge amount of respect as a coach and Bundee Aki is a serious centre, the Ireland legend's point was that others were learning heaps from Henshaw who, at just 22, has so much more to learn himself.

At Leinster, he will line up outside Johnny Sexton on a week-to-week basis and have a host of other internationals around him at all times. When he goes to work, he will do so in a pristine environment at UCD where Leinster put a lot of the income they generated during their European glory years to good use by building a training centre of huge quality.

And while his capture is a major coup for Leinster who can sell tickets based on the idea of Henshaw and Garry Ringrose pairing up outside Sexton next season, it is also a chance for the centre to become one of the stars of the side rather than the de facto star of the team.

It's a crushing blow to Connacht, but one they've known could be coming for a while.

Aki becomes Irish-qualified next season and their mission now is to retain the brilliant Samoan who has filled in so ably for Henshaw during a campaign when they've rarely had a chance to call on Henshaw due to his World Cup involvement and subsequent injury.

One of those outings came at Thomond Park, a game in which he broke his hand while offloading brilliantly to Aki for the try that made history in Limerick.

At the full-time whistle, the joy in Henshaw's face was unbridled as he embraced his old school friend Jack Carty and his kindred spirit Aki in the aftermath.

There was something special about one of Connacht's own providing the spark, but professional sport is a hard-nosed game and Robbie Henshaw's priority for his short career has to be himself.

For all the romance of wanting to be part of his home province's growth, he has a better chance of achieving on a Pro12 and European stage with the eastern province.

Living and working in Dublin will help with his profile as he attempts to maximise his earnings while also giving him the greater chance of silverware.

When he returns to Galway in the blue of Leinster, it won't be easy, but he will have thought long and hard about that as well.

This has been the most difficult decision of Robbie Henshaw's young life, but just as he does on the rugby pitch he'll back himself to make it work and play hard until he wins.

Connacht's loss is undoubtedly Leinster's gain and the player has taken the less romantic path, but it's a short career, it's his career and that should be respected.

Before he departs, he will be even more determined than ever to contribute to a historic season for his home province with Challenge Cup and Pro12 honours to fight for.

Leaving won't be easy, but doing so on a high would help ease the burden.

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