Henshaw ready to emerge from the shadows for Ireland
'Off the pitch I can be timid, but once you cross that line there's no holding back', warns centre ahead of Six Nations debut that's been three years in the making
For the third year in succession, Robbie Henshaw is spending spring in an Ireland tracksuit, preparing for Six Nations games.
The difference in 2015 is he's going to actually play.
On top of the broad shoulders and behind the boyish smile is a head that is well accustomed to what goes into international rugby. Henshaw may be just five caps into his Test career, but he has been groomed for this stage since his teenage years.
Barring a late injury calamity, Saturday's opening game in Rome will see the Athlone native make his Championship debut at the Stadio Olimpico.
Last season, he was 24th man in each of Ireland's games and he jumped in and out of training sessions when Brian O'Driscoll needed to nurse his injured calf.
The muscle remained intact long enough for the great man to sign off in style, while denying Henshaw his shot at the big time until November last year when he made his first start on home soil against South Africa in the No 12 shirt and then backed that up with a strong display in the No13 jersey against Australia.
He is still just 21, but Henshaw is accustomed to the limelight, having grown up rubbing shoulders with the great and the good of the Irish squad.
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In March, he stood on the sideline and willed his mates on to glory in Paris having lived in their pockets for eight weeks. Now he gets to make his own history.
"I felt like I was nearly playing the game on the sideline. I was just in it," he says of that dramatic night at the Stade de France.
"Obviously, it was disappointing not to be playing. I think Joe used me big time last year to train and run plays against the lads, just to be there in case there were any injury worries.
"Declan Kidney brought me in for a bit of experience and then last year I was with the whole squad for the duration of the Six Nations as well.
"I travelled to a lot of games and togged out as 24th or 25th man. It was a good experience of match day because I know how to prepare and what to prepare for.
"That gave me confidence as well, that he saw something in me, being part of the squad for many of the games. It showed me I was there. I wasn't too far away."
He may not have tasted glory, but he was close enough to smell it and that will drive him this season as Schmidt puts his trust in the youngest man at Carton House.
While the O'Driscoll line remains open if he needs it, Henshaw is his own man now and hasn't called his mentor for advice in a while.
"I've used Brian a couple of times early on in the season. But I'm just backing myself now and doing whatever I can for myself in terms of preparation and playing well and putting good performances on the pitch," he says.
"How to prepare myself for my home debut was what I meant by that. I took a few pointers off him before games and stuff like that. But at the moment now everything has been just my own work and I've prepared myself."
The stabilisers are off and it has been clear to see that the faith shown in him has, in turn, spurred Henshaw on to new heights.
Connacht may not see him as often as they used to, but they have been the main beneficiaries as their homegrown hero's confidence develops.
Against Munster, he was exceptional in attack and abrasive in defence. Two weeks later when Exeter Chiefs came to town, he put in a breathtaking 40 minutes that combined raw aggression and sublime skills.
It was all summed up in one movement when he chipped the ball over the English side's defence, gathered it on the full and, without breaking stride, attempted an off-load to Kieran Marmion. The scrum-half would have been in had it come off, but unfortunately the final pass went forward.
What it showed was a young man bursting with confidence and free from fear when it came to trying things. It may take some time for him to try such an audacious move in the other shade of green, but it won't be long.
"The confidence is showing more and more in my game. I'm trying different things and that's a little bit of the confidence that I've been bringing back to my province that I gained in November," he explains.
"I'm just looking to keep improving myself as a player and not to hold back or second-think anything, just to keep going and do what comes into my head.
"I'm still developing in the centre. I'm just enjoying my rugby, at the moment. I want to try and get a lot of games there going into the Six Nations, to put my hand up there to be in the centre as a regular.
"I will hopefully get a chance there this week. Italy are tough opposition, a tough outfit at home in their own backyard.
"Playing with that confidence has made me a little bit of a better player."
Aside from Connacht ultimately losing the game, the main drawback of Henshaw's display against Exeter was the ankle injury that ruled him out of their win in La Rochelle.
The knock was never going to keep him out of Six Nations contention, however, and now he is ready to embrace the step up in class over the next two months.
Having relished the physical nature of Test rugby in November, he is ready to show his ruthless streak this month.
"Once you step over the line you have to be ruthless on the pitch. You don't hold back, and people say they can see that character in me when I play," he says.
"Off the pitch I can be timid sometimes, but once you cross that line there's no holding back. You have to be ruthless when you're on the pitch and do the best you can for the team.
"I think it all comes down to your preparation as well as the sort of individual you are. A lot of different players have their own techniques in preparing for games and training well through the week and building up the confidence is good.
"When you train well on the pitch and you're going into a match with no worries, then once you step across the line it's business then and you just give it your all. The aggression flows naturally, absolutely."
That aggression is what Schmidt is counting on when he sends Henshaw into the Roman battlefield on Saturday for the first Six Nations game of the post-O'Driscoll era. The 21-year-old is confident and ready after biding his time. It's his stage now.