Robbie Henshaw: ‘It is an obsession. We are not shy about saying what we want to achieve’

The Leinster player explains how his team hope to beat their bête noire, La Rochelle, on Saturday and close in on the Champions Cup success they crave

Since Leinster secured their fourth star in 2018, they have endured a tortuously anticlimactic search for a fifth. Beaten finalists, losing quarter-finalists in an empty Aviva, beaten semi-finalists, beaten finalists again and beaten finalists yet again last May.

And yet with each painful near miss Leinster have regrouped and vowed to return with even greater determination to win a fifth Champions Cup. Johnny Sexton may have retired, but that attitude hasn’t changed. It has echoes of Munster’s Magnificent Obsession of the Noughties.

“It is an obsession,” Robbie Henshaw freely admitted this week. “Within this club it is an obsession. It is huge. We are not shy about saying what we want to achieve and that definitely is the fifth star. So yeah, it is an obsession for everyone, from our head coach [down].”

Despite his injury woes, Henshaw has accumulated as much Champions Cup despair as any Leinster player in the last five seasons. He started all five of those aforementioned defeats – ie three finals, a semi-final and a quarter-final. It makes you wonder if a team can want something too much.


“No, I don’t think so,” he maintained, and having also played in the successful 2018 final in Bilbao against Racing 92, he spoke from experience when adding: “When you experience winning this competition it is all you really think about.

“Like watching it as a kid growing up, to experience winning it is like no other, literally. So, yeah, I think this one is the one to win. It definitely is for us and for me personally it is the one we are always chasing.”

Leinster have played some wonderful rugby in the last five seasons, more consistently so than any other team in Europe probably. There were, at least, the three Pro14 titles that preceded the relative famine of two seasons without a trophy. In the eyes of many, and perhaps themselves, their season appears to be deemed a failure unless they win the Champions Cup, which seems almost cruel.

It’s almost a relief that Henshaw wouldn’t quite go that far.

“I wouldn’t say ‘a failure’. I’d say probably a really good learning curve and probably opens our eyes as to how competitive teams are in this competition. How much teams are growing and getting better, you know. I remember Stuart Lancaster saying when you are sitting at the top you are always being hunted.

“That’s the thing, you can see that teams have caught up and teams are getting better and better. It is great for rugby. It is great for the competition. But for us I think there has been a good bit of change within the group and I think it is great and I think we need to take those lessons now and we need to apply them and make sure we will do it this year.”

No team epitomises this, of course, more than La Rochelle, who have replaced Saracens as Leinster’s bête noire by winning those last two finals and the semi-final of three seasons ago, with Big Bad Will Skelton the common denominator. Now Skelton et al loom into view in Saturday’s quarter-final at the Aviva Stadium.

“We know the likes of[Levani]Botia, Skelton,[Uini])Atonio,[Jonathan] Danty – they’re all coming straight for us, and I think that’s a challenge I relish and all the lads relish. We love getting stuck in and I think our point of difference this year is our defence,” said Henshaw. “Our defence will be tested but we’re looking forward to it.”

Henshaw speaks warmly of Jacques Nienaber’s “energy and positivity”, adding: “The work he does reporting on teams, reviewing, previewing teams is unbelievable.”

Henshaw confirmed they will also be leaning on Nienaber’s experience of winning tight knockout games in the last two World Cups with the Springboks.

Leinster’s defence under Nienaber is still in its relatively early stages, and Leicester exposed more chinks last Saturday. But the heightened line speed was rewarded with Henshaw’s key intercept try.

Despite being troubled by a hamstring issue for the third World Cup in a row, Henshaw has this season already played precisely twice as many minutes for province and country (1,264) as he did in the whole of the 2022/23 campaign (632 minutes).

Following his recent wedding to Sophie Marren in the aftermath of Ireland’s Six Nations title success, Henshaw was back playing in the wins over the Bulls and Leicester.

His first game alongside Jamie Osborne was against the Bulls, and one ventures that if Garry Ringrose is ruled out of Saturday’s match, Henshaw will be defending in the 10/12 channel where Danty will again come charging.

Although it was only a pool game, Leinster must derive some inner belief from withstanding the heavy bombardment of their line in sodden conditions last December that were ideal for La Rochelle’s power game, to finally beat the French side.

“It is very important,” said Henshaw. “I think it was great for us to win that dogfight but I think we are under no illusions that that was the pool stages. They lost two games at the pool stage and have still come through.

“I think they are a great team and under their coach they are unbelievable at finding a way to grind out a win or to get through. That will be in our heads as well that they play to the final whistle and they have always found a way over the last few years.”

It’s an almost indefinable factor, the ability that some sides have to “find a way”. Henshaw attributes this to La Rochelle’s experience within a group, dealing with periods of pressure and then responding in kind, whereas Leinster need to better manage the periods either side of half-time and especially in the last 10 minutes.

“And then last year, looking back, we got a great start against them and let them back in and then probably sat back a little and didn’t keep attacking them and that’s probably in our minds that we probably have to stay attacking for the 80 minutes and not sit back and not try to contain them.”