Monday 16 September 2019

Tackling things together... Robbie Henshaw and dad Tony

Rugby star Robbie Henshaw looks to dad Tony for guidance, and they're blessed among their house of women

Father and son: Robbie Henshaw, 22, pictured by the Shannon with his dad, Tony, who is also his manager, and coached his rugby teams when he was a child. Photo: Tony Gavin
Father and son: Robbie Henshaw, 22, pictured by the Shannon with his dad, Tony, who is also his manager, and coached his rugby teams when he was a child. Photo: Tony Gavin

Andrea Smith

When Robbie Henshaw was a small child, his parents had to put a dog leash on him to stop him falling into the Shannon when they were out on their boat, Jessica. This followed the heart-stopping moment when they discovered that he was missing, and looked back to see him bobbing in the water in his yellow lifejacket. "I was always a bit crazy running around the boat, and kept falling in," says the six-foot-three Connacht and Ireland rugby star. "They put a leash on me to keep me close after that. We always loved going out on the water, and the boat is named after my late sister Jessica, which is quite special."

Jessica sadly passed away when she was only a year-and-a-half old, after she suffered an adverse reaction to the 3-in-1 immunisation injection. She would be 27 now, and her death was a devastating blow to the family. "It was dreadful," says dad Tony, who says that Jessica's passing made himself and his psychotherapist wife Audrey very protective of Katie, 30, Ali, 24, Robbie, 22, and Emily, 20. "It was the worst time in our lives and the biggest nightmare that could happen. I love being a father, and all of the kids are great and are still in and out of home. Katie has just finished her degree, Ali has been teaching over in Canterbury, Robbie is in second year at NUIG doing arts, and Emily is in her first year of nursing training."

The Henshaws live in a stunning house in Coosan, Westmeath, that overlooks the Shannon. The genial Tony hasn't moved far, as he grew up close by as the eldest of Billy and Bridie Henshaw's eight children. His parents are in their 80s, and while his dad worked with CIE as a train driver for 40 years, he was also very musical. He played in bands and all of his children learned to play, and Tony plays guitar, bouzouki and bass. The love of music has been passed to the grandchildren, including Robbie, who plays the accordion, fiddle, guitar and piano. "When my father Billy decides to call a session, you could put about 45 musicians together with all the extended family," says Tony.

Tony met Audrey when he was 24 and playing in a band. He gave her a lift home with two of her pals and really "liked the look of her." Now semi-retired, he always worked in the cable business, and progressed to become a cable factory inspector. "I'm using my experience to work with a friend who has a group of companies," he says. "He has pulled me back to work, but I'm desperately trying to retire as I'm 63 now."

Last season, the handsome, mannerly Robbie was named the IRUPA 'Young Player of the Year' for the third year in a row, Connacht Rugby Players 'Player of the Year' and Connacht Rugby Fans 'Player of the Year.' His rugby prowess comes as no surprise, as his dad and uncle Davie were both great players who played for Athlone and Connacht. Robbie was always sports mad, and played rugby, soccer and Gaelic with six teams. His dad coached his rugby team from under-8s to under-19s, and they have always been very close. They have to be, as they're the only men in a house full of women. "We have to keep the peace, but thankfully I always had an ensuite so I wasn't in the bathroom queue," jokes Robbie.

While Robbie always shone at Marist College in Athlone (and still trains at the gym there when he's at home), his dad, who now manages him and attends every match, would never have dreamed that his talented son would have progressed this far so fast. It was important to them both that Robbie went to college, as they are mindful that it only takes one injury to end a career. It wasn't easy last year combining studies with rugby training, but NUIG has been very good to Robbie. He completed second year over two years, and they have given him a few years to complete his third year of geography and economics.

Robbie says that his mum worries about potential injuries on the pitch, although thankfully the outside-centre player hasn't suffered anything serious so far. He had a ligament replaced in his hand and dislocated his thumb, but these were more annoying than damaging, he says. He appreciates the support of Aviva Health Insurance, who recently named him as its rugby ambassador, and will work with them in supporting it across several rugby initiatives leading up to the World Cup in September and October, and then into next year's RBS Six Nations Championship.

"All of the players' mothers look out to see if their boys are injured instead of looking to see if we score," he laughs. "Mum has got used to it now and she takes it all right, but there was a couple of years where she was really concerned about the physical nature of the game. She's a caring, honest person, and I really appreciate her support along the way."

"Robbie learned all the basic skills of how to protect himself at a young age, but his mother is always a bundle of nerves at the big matches in the Aviva or abroad," says Tony. "In my career, a lot of the injuries I have seen were with with guys who took up rugby too late and maybe were tackling wrong."

Robbie has been dating Sophie Marron for the past couple of years, and she has been in America on a J1 all summer. He is looking forward to her coming home, and says that if he becomes a father in the future, he would like to be like his own dad. Growing up in a sporting environment gave him good discipline, and while his dad always gives his honest opinion of his performance, he never puts him down, They review the matches on the way home in the car, and Robbie really enjoys being able to properly discuss them with someone who knows the game as well as his dad does. "The way Dad reared our family has been great, as he has shown me the right path, worked really hard for our family, and been a true leader," says Robbie.

Aviva Health Insurance is the official health insurer to Robbie and the Irish Rugby team.

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