Henshaw hoping to follow in O’Driscoll’s footsteps

Connacht youngster is being tipped as a long term replacement for Brian O’Driscoll at outside centre

Connacht’s Robbie Henshaw in action against Zebre earlier this month. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Connacht’s Robbie Henshaw in action against Zebre earlier this month. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho


No pressure then Robbie Henshaw. Sitting at the top table in the team hotel in Carton House with Paul O’Connell’s great mass to his right and Brian O’Driscoll’s name being lobbed into the air seems deliberately incendiary and surreal.

These early days are always storied with hopes and premature talk of ascendancy. The combination of new names, Henshaw and old heroes, O’Driscoll might promise misty eyed adventure, easy metaphors on rise and fall. But for the 20-year-old, who made his debut for Connacht just a year ago rugby life is more prosaic.

While Henshaw is keenly aware he is being invited to walk on hallowed ground around the 13 shirt, he knows to tread with care. The mild discomfort springs from his first session with Joe Schmidt.

In the real world of Pro12 and Heineken Cup the paths of O’Driscoll and Henshaw cross as adversaries but last weekend, it was O’Driscoll passing on his learning like an inheritance to one of the players who would have his position. Henshaw was in national school when O’Driscoll scored his hat trick against France in Stade de France in 2000.

“When he scored his hat trick, I think I was on the couch with my dad watching,” says Henshaw. “I’ve been swapping in and out trying to get to know the roles of 13, picking up some basic tips of the position. He’s been really helpful to me, given me some invaluable tips.

“It’s a bit of a tough balance to go out and train with your heroes, people you looked up to, that you’ve watched since you were a young kid. I’ve just tried to keep focussed, keep my head down and just play my normal game and get on with the task. That’s all I can do, get on with it and keep positive.”

There are various names that openly covet outside centre with Keith Earls and Fergus McFadden two who have played the position. Luke Fitzgerald’s claim has also come up with Henshaw, a late but welcome entry into that elevated group.

“I wasn’t too concerned about moving to 13 because I played a lot there underage in school,” he says. “So obviously it’s a way higher standard now but I try to take a look at what Brian O’Driscoll does and a few 13s around the world. Other than that I just stay focused and keep to the path.”

Henshaw made his senior debut for Ireland against the USA in June of this year on the summer tour. Then 19, he started at fullback. In Ireland’s second match he came off the bench against Canada, another benchmark in his career.

“I really enjoyed it (the summer tour) and was really delighted to get my first cap over there. I’m really just keen to keep going and get half a good season here now,” he says.

But like Earls, McFadden, Fitzgerald and every other talented back in the country, Henshaw knows that confining himself to just one number on his back is not a long game view. Like the Ulster forward across the table from him, Iain Henderson, he will gladly build up his game on crumbs. For now.

“I hope to play both 15 and 13 now for versatility reasons,” he says. “For the team. I like playing the two positions and I’m not really sticking to one. Further down the line I think I’ll settle on one.”

It’s the open eyed view that Schmidt prefers, and although it’s difficult to see the Kiwi coach going radical with three higher ranked teams, Samoa, Australia and New Zealand arriving to Aviva Stadium in November, there is reason to believe Henshaw’s international career will not shudder to a halt.

“I think we’re really open-minded, Robbie’s played both 15 and 13 this season,” said Schmidt this week. Encouraging. “Iain Henderson has played at six. He started last week in the second row. I see that as a strength for both young players, particularly when you are trying to fit into a group of 23”.

And so it goes. Henshaw, Henderson, Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Stuart Olding. really, they all want to be iconoclasts.

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