Monday 18 December 2017

'You don't hold back...You have to be a dog once you cross the white line'

'If' becomes 'when' for Henshaw as he graduates from being a timid teen sensation at Connacht to his hero Brian O'Driscoll's Ireland heir apparent

Robbie Henshaw of Connacht
Robbie Henshaw of Connacht
David Kelly

David Kelly

"If you can dream – and not make dreams your master ... "

From a boy to a man.

This boy, aged just six years, nine months and seven days, sits rapt beside his father on a couch in a little place called Coosan, near Athlone, watching agog as George Hamilton narrates a fairytale from Paris.

The same boy, Robbie Henshaw, is now, just, a man, aged 20 years, seven months and 18 days. But the memory sweeps over him and, momentarily, transports him to childhood.

First, O'Driscoll takes delivery from Mal O'Kelly's soft hands. "I just loved what I saw," says Henshaw. Then the sweeping move and Rob Henderson's sweet inside ball. "I was amazed by it."

Finally, the most audacious pick-up this young kid will ever see in his life, as if O'Driscoll divined that the ball would hit grass before anyone else.

"I remember running out into the garden afterwards with the ball," says Henshaw. "I was just totally in awe with what had happened and what I saw Brian O'Driscoll do."

Except it wasn't a rugby ball. He hadn't held one in his life. Within days, though, he was down in the Buccaneers mini-rugby section.

This boy was now hooked on a dream.

Fast forward – oh, give it 13 years, seven months and 20 days – and Henshaw is at an Ireland training camp, his every move shadowing the same iconic figure that so enthralled him in that house on the edge of Lough Ree.

Only this time the boy is a man. He is already a teenage Ireland international. He will play in Lansdowne Road against Australia, featuring strongly as an emergency trash-time replacement.

But the primary knowledge will derive from these days and weeks, the pupil shadowing the master, the boy shadowing the man.

"It was amazing," says Henshaw. "You wouldn't be able to buy that teaching."

Each moment, a step bringing the boy closer to manhood, closer to the day when he hopes to emerge from the shadows.

* * * * *

THERE were already two older sisters in the house when Robbie Henshaw came into the world on June 12, 1993. Another would follow.

If there was a ball kicked in the house in his early years, it was made by O'Neill's.

The boy played in Garrycastle, but – and this would make even Dessie Dolan feel old – the boy was too young and never got to play with Dessie Dolan.

For the young Henshaw, Jones's Road formed the route to his cathedral, not Lansdowne Road.

He may have watched agog as O'Driscoll stunned the world, but Westmeath's stunning Leinster title under Páidí Ó Sé's roguish hand formed the centre of his universe. He went to every game of that campaign. That autumn he started in Marist College where GAA and rugby dovetailed. Still, his blossoming minor career threatened to win the tug-of-war with his sporting affections until an Ireland schools selection presented a fork in the road.

"My parents suggested it was time to pick one or the other," he recalls. "I was progressing with the Westmeath minors when I got the first cap for Irish schools and that made my decision really.

"Connacht had been on to me. I knew then it was turning serious. I loved the game also, I enjoyed playing it every weekend. It wasn't just because I got that recognition; I was beginning to enjoy it more. I loved the hits. Not saying GAA hasn't got the hits!"

By this stage, his father, Tony, who had first brought him down to Buccaneers, was now coaching there, too; the pair would form a coach/player relationship of sufficient strength to aid an U-19 All-Ireland Cup win with the midlanders.

"Neither of my parents ever really pushed me, they never forced me to do anything," he says. "They let me do what I want. My dad introduced me to rugby and I loved it, then I loved when he coached me until the U-19s.

"I appreciated that sense of him allowing me to make my own decisions. It wasn't all perfect, there'd be a few slamming doors. Everything went well in the end though. Even with the worst weather you'd have as a kid, there was never a day when I didn't want to go out. I never had any negative thinking."

* * * * *

"If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs..."

His ascension to adulthood was accelerated. Already fast-tracked into a professional life as an 18-year-old, he also combined his sporting life with academia, pursuing an arts degree in Galway.

He has relegated the studies to a part-time basis; he never really felt the need to scratch the itch of joining the gang at the many 'five shots for a tenner' promotions. He doesn't know why he didn't scratch; it's just in him.

"It was tough to an extent," he says of the speedy translation from boyhood to adulthood. "In my first year in college, I was living with a bunch of Athlone mates. They'd be out regularly in the clubs and that. I'd go to bed at 10.30 and I'd hear them rocking in at 4.0. You'd be hearing the craic from them.

"I just thought about the opportunity that I had, that not many people get. Doing what I love, playing a sport I love. That's what kept me motivated.

"I try not to get too caught up in anything. I keep my head in a good place, I don't get worried about stuff. Once I got recognition for the Irish Schools, I just wanted to push on. I had to do it.

"You've a game every weekend. And Galway's not a massive place to get lost in to start with!"

He was mapped from stardom before anyone had shown him the co-ordinates; Eric Elwood, his Connacht coach, told us after his fourth game, he would play for Ireland. Being with Connacht ensured he grew up fast.

"It makes you appreciate things, it hardens you up. You have to fight for everything. That's what we're all about, fighting until the final whistle."

If he was awe-struck in Connacht, it was the same when Declan Kidney first drafted him into Ireland camp.

"I knew what it was like to come into new surroundings. In the Irish camp, it was quite scary at the start. I didn't know who to...

"Everyone was really sound. They introduced themselves shook my hand. And then you get talking around the dinner table and you feel at ease after a couple of weeks."

He remains painfully shy; it is difficult to see him behind the velvet rope of a VIP section. A stark contrast to the beast that is unfurled beyond the white line. Again, he doesn't know – yet – from where the utter contrast derives. It's just in him.


"Depending on the crowd, if I don't know people that well, I wouldn't be that open. I wouldn't turn my back on someone. I'm not extrovert. I'm quiet. A little bit timid maybe. It's a conscious change when you go on the pitch. Your mentality changes, you don't hold back. My dad told me to leave it all out on the pitch. But you have to be a dog once you cross the white line."

He is trying to become more extroverted in an attempt to give more of himself. He must if he wants to become the best at what he does.

"I'd be more conscious recently of trying to do that a bit more. I'd never have an input before this season in terms of putting in a few words of motivation or anything like that. But this season I've started to do it a little bit more, throwing in a few words to get the lads going. Nothing too major, just to let them know I'm there, that I'm not holding back."

Ireland may have difficulty in holding him back this spring, 14 years after first watching the man whose boots he may yet fill before this championship ends.

The boy is ready to become a man, to emerge from the shadows. "I'd love to play a game in this Six Nations," he says with quiet determination.

"Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,

And – which is more – you'll be a Man, my son!"

Irish Independent

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