Saturday 21 April 2018

Henshaw's roots remain imperative as his reputation continues to rise

Centre opens up on his improving combination with Ringrose and the dangers posed by Scots

Robbie Henshaw: ‘It’s nice to be able to keep growing into that shirt and keep performing week in, week out.’ Photo: Brendan Moran
Robbie Henshaw: ‘It’s nice to be able to keep growing into that shirt and keep performing week in, week out.’ Photo: Brendan Moran
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Robbie Henshaw is remembering the day the Grand Slam trophy came to his school, Marist Athlone. He was around 15 at the time. Gordon D'Arcy, one of his heroes, was part of the visiting crew. Henshaw says he couldn't get near the trophy such was the clamour of kids. And that he never for a moment dreamed that he would ever be in D'Arcy's position.

It's kind of hard not to imagine him clearing a path to the stage if that's what he wanted, for even at that age Henshaw was physically all there. Whatever, a mere six years later he would be part of Ireland's World Cup squad. And the day he got home from that exhausting experience he was back in the school himself, helping out with the cup teams.

As Mick Loftus, who coached him in Marist, recalls: "The lads were in awe." Not unlike Henshaw when he had been the one in school uniform. Nowadays he is the unofficial sporting ambassador for Marist, the lad who made the representative grade through the youth system and then was picked up by Irish schools when injury opened up a slot.

"It would have been great for him to be able to get advice from someone who had gone before him, but he was the first," Loftus recalls. "And it's great to see him now doing some one-to-one with Cory Reid (Irish under 18) who is on the way up. That's typical of Robbie."

And what words of wisdom is he passing on?

"Just go in with an open mind and have a go, and don't hold back," Henshaw says. "Enjoy himself, is what I said mostly. Keep talking and don't be shy, just enjoy himself. I was a bit too shy, but I found my feet after a while. Good memories back there."

He makes it sound like another lifetime, but when you're 23 and you've been a positive part of Irish rugby history on a few levels then perhaps you feel all grown up. He has had the lucky strike of Six Nations Championships in his first two campaigns; the thrill of being part of Ireland's first win on South African soil; and the cherry on top was Chicago against the All Blacks two months ago.

On the home front there was the Guinness Pro12 title last season with Connacht - the perfect send-off to a whole new career with Leinster. Given that Leinster were Connacht's victims in the final, and looked dull by comparison, questions were asked if Henshaw had made the right move to travel east. The length of time the issue was in the public domain was enough to melt his head. He seemed to cope, admirably.

A home draw in the Champions Cup quarter-final was a fairly good response. In any case, the move was always going to be good for him. His development demanded it. Plus, it was flattering they chased him so hard.

"Yeah, absolutely. It's great to be able to move dirt and soil for them. And for them to come looking for me was pretty flattering as well. It gives me a good boost of confidence for my game. I think I'm adapting well to the systems up there and playing in that environment, and I'm thriving off it in the last few weeks. I've got a lot more ball in hand and picked up a couple of scores over the last game. It's nice to be able to keep growing into that shirt and keep performing week in, week out."

Then there is the partnership most of us wanted to see on a weekly basis, teaming up with Garry Ringrose.

"Yeah, it's great. It's exciting. We're getting stronger and stronger again. We're just feeding off each other and there is more chat between us. It's still growing, there's still a bit of work to do. But I'm enjoying playing with him - he's a great kid and a great footballer. He's not the loudest but his chat is getting better. The same as myself, he has to work on his communication as well. I think every player coming in is pretty shy and doesn't have the loudest voice because you're coming in to a new set-up. But he's grown into the shirt as well. I know we're just feeding off each other."

"I think qualifying for the quarter-finals was a big step (in settling in). Johnny came back against Zebre. I think in that game the three of us connected well. We were all singing off the same hymn sheet, there were a couple of moments in that game where I didn't have to look and I knew he was there, I heard his voice, I popped a couple of offloads off to Garry. It's nice to see that relationship is working well and you don't have to look, you just listen and he'll be there. It's nice to be able to get that balance there."

Barring accidents this week this is the pair that will likely face Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones in the Scotland midfield. It's a bit early in their partnership to class them as a fearsome combination, but with Sexton hopefully fit it gives Ireland a really good unit across the middle, one that has the luxury of working with each other outside the Test window.

Moreover, they are thriving under the direction of Stuart Lancaster. Henshaw fitted in nicely to the attack system used by Pat Lam in Connacht. Now he is loving what Lancaster brings to the same subject. And clearly he is thriving too in the altogether different environment created by Joe Schmidt in the Ireland camp.

We should see the evidence on Saturday. The last time Henshaw played a Test match in Murrayfield it was that remarkable finale to the 2015 Championship when everyone - well almost everyone - played like it was their last game.

"We just went out with the mentality of scoring and keep scoring, and it was an enjoyable day," he says. "It was a great day, actually. The sun was shining, there wasn't a puff of wind and I remember our backs got a couple of tries as well. We didn't sit back and watch the game.

"It's going to be a tricky one (this time). They're playing with a lot of confidence at the moment. They've a really good squad there. Looking at the club teams, Glasgow and Edinburgh have qualified in the European competitions, into the quarter-finals. And, yeah it's going to be a tough test. They're coming off the back of a good November series. Probably should have beaten Australia and beat Argentina obviously. I know they have some good class out wide and, they have a good centre pairing. He's (Dunbar) a good player; he's a smart player. He runs hard lines. We need to be switched on. Myself and Johnny in particular need to be on our toes. Obviously Garry out wide if he's playing 13, we just need to be all connected for our quick guys out wide."

Naturally enough, he is running a mile from contemplating the last day against England, for fear that the ground opens up and swallows him. But if the Championship progresses for Ireland as hoped, the prospect of bringing his own Grand Slam to Marist would be truly special.

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