Tony Ward: Gravity of Henshaw injury could yet undo Irish Grand Slam ambitions
Robert Henshaw (as I then referred to him in my schools coverage) first hit my radar in late 2010 through Michael Loftus, the hugely inspirational teacher and coach behind the game and its development in Marist College, Athlone.
The Henshaw name has long been associated with Marist but I think it fair to say that no one boy has had a greater influence on the evolution of the game in the school than Robbie Henshaw in his school-going time there.
Despite his best attempts to marry rugby with Gaelic football as a member of the Westmeath minor team in 2010 and 2011, the oval-ball game became his all-consuming passion.
As one who had to make a similar decision, albeit with another code, it is a massive call, particularly at that stage in a fledgling career.
But anyone who knows the said Mr Loftus will understand where the now Lion is coming from when he describes the man who coached him throughout his school days thus: "Mick has been the driving force behind rugby in the school for as long as I can remember. He has always been hugely influential and he constantly challenges guys to improve themselves and the standards within the school.
"GAA was probably considered to be bigger at one point , but in recent years rugby is at definitely on a par with it. It's growing every year and that's proven by the fact we won two Senior Cups in a row in 2012 and 2013."
Bear in mind that the only previous success was in 1977 when beating Sligo Grammar in the final and it was a repeat when Henshaw led his school to that Connacht Holy Grail beating the same opposition (12-0) in the 2012 finale.
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Loftus recognised early that the latest in the Henshaw line was a natural leader, making his appointment as captain in sixth year a no-brainer and he certainly didn't disappoint on that call.
According to Henshaw, "winning that Senior Cup really helped with my transition (through the Connacht Academy to the pro game) as it gave me the confidence to know that I was good enough to compete with guys who were older than me."
I think this an appropriate point of entry because apart from highlighting the most influential figure in his playing career (move over Joe), it highlights even more the early penchant for responsibility and leadership.
Bear in mind that despite being 33 caps on as well as that recent Lions Tour to New Zealand (where injury again struck), the established first-choice Ireland centre is still only 24.
The best is yet to come but the most pressing concern for Joe Schmidt is in replacing the player who has become a very real leader in this current Irish set-up for the three massive games ahead. Jared Payne had inherited that organisational role in succession to Brian O'Driscoll and was making a fair fist of it but as of now he is still an even more serious injury victim than Henshaw.
Because of our strength in depth in the back-row, serious injuries to Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock and Seán O'Brien can be taken on the chin. Anything untoward happening to Conor Murray and/or Johnny Sexton and we've got problems. Andrew Porter did a great job in covering for Tadhg Furlong against the Italians but he is still a rookie in terms of the forward juggernauts coming our way.
I can't recall too many props suffering from hamstring tweaks back in the day but it is one of those debilitating injuries that can only be fully tested in the white heat of battle. I hope I am wrong but I would worry greatly about Furlong's bill of health going forward.
We might not be fully stretched in terms of midfield alternatives but I would put Henshaw in the Murray/Sexton/Furlong category - he is that vital to Ireland's cause.
It used to get on my goat when coaches would lecture post-match as to 'unseen work off the ball'. In today's tech-savvy game, where TV cameras cover every angle, such nonsense talk has no place. Henshaw's work off the ball is phenomenal - and it is there for everybody to see.
But whether with or without the ball that combination of hard graft allied to deft touch is difficult to replicate. He is no Brian O'Driscoll nor does he pretend to be but what he encapsulates is the type of honesty in a talented player that Schmidt craves.
Keith Earls did a reasonable job when covering for Henshaw against the Italians but, irrespective of the Limerick man's outstanding current form, that is not an option for the rest of this Championship.
Earls has developed into an outstanding wing in his own right and Schmidt is acutely aware of that. So where to now? Bundee Aki is but a wet week on board but already, as expected, looks the part. The issue for the head coach was always set to arise when Garry Ringrose, Henshaw and Aki were fit and firing - which would make for an obvious three-into-two conundrum.
The Connacht Kiwi brings a different skill set to Ringrose and Henshaw. He is not an Owen Farrell or anything close in terms of game management but we will leave the tactical nuances of Farrell and George Ford until we get to Twickenham on the final day. I would imagine the Ireland head coach is testing every centre combination behind closed doors at Carton House. The Six Nations break has been kind in that respect.
If Stuart McCloskey is in the mix you would expect one from the big Ulster centre, Chris Farrell (who impressed greatly on limited opportunity back in November), Ringrose (although some way from match fitness for obvious reasons) or Rory Scannell to start against Wales.
What of Ian Keatley at out-half with Johnny Sexton inside centre (a la Farrell) in a mid match crisis? Scannell is the most comfortable alternative when wearing 12, with that well-educated left peg a decided asset alongside a right-footed out-half.
While the normal emphasis would be in keeping change to a minimum, ie Ringrose for Henshaw leaving Aki on the inside channel, that will of course hinge on the Ringrose state of being to face the Welsh. Failing that, it is not inconceivable that Schmidt could opt for a new centre pair entirely. On the basis of units - witness Warren Gatland with Wales courtesy of the Scarlets - a case could be made for Scannell and Farrell as an all-Munster pairing.
Much will depend on how they go in training because if we get it wrong then the absence of Henshaw could see that Grand Slam dream in tatters in seven days' time. With Ringrose fit, I would keep change to a minimum and concentrate on what Aki brings to the table rather than what he doesn't but with Farrell on the bench as cover. Either way, the loss of Henshaw is already incalculable.