Friday 20 September 2019

'I can step up and lead through actions'

Henshaw centre of attention as confident Ireland visit Paris

Robbie Henshaw after Ireland squad training yesterday. Photo: PA
Robbie Henshaw after Ireland squad training yesterday. Photo: PA
David Kelly

David Kelly

Six days before Ireland visited Paris in 2000, Brian O'Driscoll was in Buck Whalley's nightclub at 2am.

The past was a different country, then.

Brian O’Driscoll celebrates his Paris hat-trick in 2000. Photo: Sportsfile
Brian O’Driscoll celebrates his Paris hat-trick in 2000. Photo: Sportsfile

"The next time you score for Ireland," says Oran Malone, a mate of his. "Give me a sign. Send a message to the big O."

Six days later, O'Driscoll does score; not once, not twice, but three times, as Ireland offload 28 years of hurt and sweep to history. The wider country awoke to rugby; some, however, dozed through the whole thing.

In Lisburn, a nipper called Jacob Stockdale sleeps soundly his afternoon nap as 'the big O' signals the arrival of a global superstar, one who ensured that never again would Ireland freight the back-breaking luggage of ancient history to the French capital.

Things would never be the same again.

"Back then we were a little bit different," says Irish assistant coach Simon Easterby, who played that day for the first time against France but then lost on all seven subsequent occasions he faced them.


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"I think they guys are well equipped now to go and play through a game-plan and prepare themselves in the right way but then emotionally and physically get themselves into a good position.

"And maybe in the past we weren't as well equipped to do that as now."

A cursory glance at the 2018 squad confirms that view, quite apart from the fact that not one of them would have been in a nightclub at 2am last Sunday morning.

It is not only O'Driscoll's legendary feats that are consigned to history.

"Flip, what year would that have been?" muses the Ulster wing. "I have seen videos and highlights since. Was that was his debut?"

One might as well have been asking him about the Battle of the Somme.

Stockdale has no need to grapple with the past, only to seize the present and plot the future.

And so, unlike so many in 2000 and all those years before, instead of dreading the prospect of Paris, he simply smiles and says he will continue to do so.

Smile, that is.

When O'Driscoll played his final international, winning a title in Paris with another rare success there, he was already paving the way for those that would follow.

In that campaign, he shadowed a certain Robbie Henshaw, who would stand in for an Irish captain so often removed from training by the persistent creaks and groans of an ageing body.

It is fair to say that the apprentice has emerged from the shadows since. Where once he was the eager pupil absorbing lessons from the master, now his role is to pass on his knowledge to the impending Six Nations debutants, chiefly Stockdale and likely midfield partner Bundee Aki.

Promising Munster centre Sam Arnold's appearance at Carton House demonstrates how the wheels keep turning.

"It is a really exciting feeling coming in, being more of a leader," says Henshaw, whose 31 caps obviate any sense of his once impish immodesty.

"I can step up and lead through my actions, I suppose. All I can do is focus on doing my best for the team."

He has mimicked the rhythms of O'Driscoll's teachings but now there is a much more collaborative approach.

"I'm a bit different. I used to kind of approach Drico one on one. Now we all work together. We get our laptops out."

Stockdale knows the benefits. "Robbie always has a cool head on him, he reads the game well and that's great for a winger.

"He passes on knowledge and experience. He's a quiet guy, he leads by his actions rather than what he says. For a young guy coming in, seeing that is really awesome."

For Joe Schmidt, the uber tutor, the aim is to gather like-minded players around him who can impart his teachings..

"They're in the thick of it," notes Easterby. "It has a massive impact, you can see the players evolving what we want to do as coaches. And if you get to that point then you know that you've got something pretty special."

Ireland needed something special from an individual to win in 2000; they are now less reliant on individual flair.

"Now," adds Easterby, "we have the sort of game-plan that can open up sides so maybe we don't have to score hat-tricks to win games."

Stockdale could be this generation's star, though.

"I love playing rugby and love scoring tries even more. If I do manage to score, it will probably be my biggest smile yet."

Ireland's record may remain weak in Paris - Henshaw ruefully recalled his mistake that allowed Maxime Medard score the winner last time out - but their mindset has changed irrevocably.

Where once hope mocked them, now confidence arms them. O'Driscoll's hat-trick began that journey. His lasting legacy ensures that people like Henshaw can maintain it.

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