Tuesday 16 July 2019

Robbie Henshaw on his new found fame, Brian O'Driscoll and his first professional silverware

Soaring above Alex Goode to claim Conor Murray's kick and touch down granted Robbie Henshaw entry into a small club of heroic figures whose tries against England will never be forgotten. Rúaidhrí O'Connor talks to Ireland's latest superstar

Robbie Henshaw
Robbie Henshaw
Robbie scores his first try for Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in the victory against England
Robbie pictured with his granddad, Billy Henshaw, in the recent Three #AllItTakes video series

IT WAS a visit to Dundrum Town Centre that opened Robbie Henshaw's eyes to the fact that his life is different now. Handed some downtime during the Six Nations, he opted for a spot of retail therapy in the heart of south Dublin.

Before the campaign, he could have made his way around in relative anonymity, but scoring a try against England changes all of that, and it soon became apparent that all eyes were on him.

The 21-year-old is a natural on the rugby pitch, but off it, he remains the same grounded figure who made his debut for Connacht the morning after his debs ball and won his first Ireland cap in Houston, Texas a week before turning 20. However, if you asked an Irish rugby fan who they'd like to swap places with right now, chances are Henshaw would be right at the top of their list.

The Athlone native is taking the notion of living the dream to its fullest and has had the kind of year that most of us mere mortals can only imagine.

Win a Six Nations title at the first attempt, check. Score an exceptional winning try against England at a packed Aviva Stadium, check. Play every minute of every game and effectively replace Brian O'Driscoll as the darling of the Irish midfield and get nominated for Player of the Tournament, check again.

Yet Henshaw seems unaffected by the whole thing as he sits in Connacht Rugby's boardroom and reflects on an amazing period in his young life. However, he has noticed that the pace of life has begun to change, that having a familiar face and being part of a successful team brings with it good and bad, and he has had to adapt to his new-found fame.

"It is a tough part of it - it is probably one of the toughest parts of the game, because you want to keep everyone happy in terms of what they want, taking part in things and doing charitable things, but obviously, you can't get around to everyone," he reflects.

"A lot of people ask for things and I try to keep everybody happy and do the best that I can, but at the end of the day, I have rugby to take care of and that's my main job. You can't get too sidetracked away from it.

"People who know me would say I find it hard to say no. I just have to get used to saying it - if it's not suiting my schedule to just say 'sorry, I can't do it'. It's something I have to work on."

Things have happened so quickly for him that he is getting used to thinking on his feet off the pitch as well as on it. His rapid rise has come with trappings and responsibilities and it is a lot to take in.

But at the centre of it all is a young man with a unique talent and an application and will to win that have driven him from schoolboy to Irish superstar in three short years.

He is back in reality now after a short holiday in Dubai to top off the celebrations and give his punished body some rest, but coming down is hard to do.

"It's not easy to come back down off it. There were some unbelievable moments in the Six Nations," he says with a smile.

"Just looking back through some of the clips, it's hard to believe it went so quickly and how it went, with the final whistle of the English game. The manner of how we won - it was unbelievable."

Born with a physique primed for professional rugby and having a skill-set to boot, he reckons his mind is what makes him the player he is.

While other 21-year-olds are still looking ahead to fulfilling their potential, Henshaw is one of the few players fast-tracked into the national team as a teenager. He has already amassed 10 caps and he was one of Ireland's top performers in the Six Nations.

"Preparation for games is tough, you need to be nailed on mentally as the coaches put such an emphasis on players being mentally right," he explains.

"I do a good bit of work with (sports psychologist and former Armagh Gaelic footballer) Enda McNulty as well. The mental side of it is massive and getting your head right for the game is huge.

"Every week, you have the same routine, going through the same thing again, so I like to do something different every week - have a little bit of a change-up so you're not expecting the same things every week. If there's a change-up in your week, it keeps you fresh."

He was happiest at the heart of a team effort driven by Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, who praised his hard-working nature at various times during the Six Nations campaign.

Henshaw had spent the 2014 Championship shadowing Brian O'Driscoll and learning the ropes, but this year he was unleashed on the European game to show what he could do.

"I loved the fact that coaches put confidence in me, to throw me in there for my first Six Nations," he says when asked what his favourite part of it all was.

"Last year, I experienced it and got a taste for it, but I didn't get a sense of how fast it was out there on the pitch and what the standard really was. The game speed was a massive step up, even from November.

"Winning against England and getting that try was definitely a highlight, but being involved in the team and playing 80 minutes every week was the most enjoyable thing."

Soaring above Alex Goode to claim Conor Murray's kick and touch down granted Henshaw entry into a small club of heroic figures whose tries against England will never be forgotten.

He joins his former mentor O'Driscoll, Shane Horgan, Girvan Dempsey, Mick Galwey, Simon Geoghegan, 'Ginger' McLoughlin and others as a member and, while he is keen not to be known as a one-hit wonder, it's clear he enjoyed his contribution.

He knows how much it means to his parents, Tony and Audrey, who have been with him every step of the way, as well as other members of the Henshaw clan.

"I just said to myself and my parents, 'that's the first trophy I've won in professional sport and what a trophy it is to win for your first one'. I mightn't see a trophy for a long time again, so you have to cherish it," he says.

"My dad travels to nearly every game he can, even every Connacht away game. He's a fanatic, so for them to invest so much in coming to all the away games. . . to be able to come to Edinburgh and celebrate the win over in Scotland, they had a great time and really good memories. They were really happy."

His family is providing a strong support network within which he can protect himself from the outside world, when he wants to focus entirely on the game that has brought him fame.

While O'Driscoll's help was invaluable on the field during his fledgling steps as an international, the now-retired legend was able to help him out a bit off the field too.

"We touched a bit on those off-the-pitch things, in terms of management and how to manage yourself off the field, because he was saying that everyone will want a piece of you when you get better and better," Henshaw recalls. "He just gave me advice in terms of management, in terms of having certain people for advice.

"Things like only your friends and family having your number, so other people don't have access to you; that you have a certain person to go to that will deal with all that. It was good advice to get."

There have been few players since O'Driscoll to have burst on to the scene in the manner in which Henshaw has done, but he has remained grounded thanks, in part, to his work with McNulty.

The Armagh native works with the Irish squad as a group and on an individual basis and first met with the youngster before he made his international debut.

"I met him for the first time in America in 2013 and he ran me through tips of how to deal with your first cap, the atmosphere in the ground, doing the right thing at the right time and, if you make a mistake, just to leave it there behind you and move on to the next job," Henshaw recalls. "He was really helpful for that, for giving me confidence in my ability.

"Your mental capacity is massive; you need to be able to work on the mental side of your game in terms of visualisation, and overall confidence is a massive strength to have. If you don't have confidence, I don't think you'll ever succeed. I think confidence is a huge block-builder to building your mental capacity."

It is clear from watching Henshaw take to the field these days that confidence is coursing through the young man, and Connacht will be hoping that he brings his Six Nations belief into their final push for a place in next season's European Champions Cup.

There is a lot of pressure on his shoulders, but he seems well built to take it and is enjoying the ride right now.

"For the (Connacht) lads, seeing us win the Six Nations has urged us on to finish strongly. We're not looking too far forward, but we have a lot of big games coming up and there's a huge focus on finishing in the top six."

Robbie is a Life Style Sports ambassador and Connacht's main club sponsor are leading a big push, #FinalCharge, for the side until the end of the season.

Robbie wears the adidas Adizero RS7 boot and says: "They make a big difference to my game. They're comfortable to wear, they're a light boot so it means you don't feel heavy on your feet and it helps me to be a lot more agile on the field. I'm quite big for a centre and I've put on a bit of weight too, so it helps me to be sharp on the field along with being comfortable."

The World Cup is looming large, but Henshaw is on message and living in the moment.

"We were just celebrating the victory alone, the way it's happened, but a lot of people in the media, after the game, were asking if this puts you in contention for a spot in the final of a World Cup and things like that," he says.

"But I just want to enjoy this. We'll pick up the challenge again in the autumn. The World Cup is a bit away, but it's still in the back of our minds and it definitely gives us a good boost of confidence going into it."

When you're living the dream, why get ahead of yourself? The way things have gone for Henshaw over the last couple of months, it seems like anything is possible and, for the moment, he's happy to take it as it comes.

Irish Independent

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