‘Exeter will have a chip on their shoulder’ – Robbie Henshaw
Leinster centre commands precision as sleeves are rolled up to give forwards a dig out
Exeter’s Gareth Steenson takes on Robbie Henshaw and Cian Healy of Leinster at Sandy Park last week: “This week it will be a different approach from Exeter,” Henshaw says. “They’re coming to play”. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty
It is a throwaway line from Robbie Henshaw but one that meets, at least, with his own approval. Illustrating how Leinster beat Exeter last week, and suggesting what the English side may face in the return at Aviva this weekend, the centre’s kitchen-sink pragmatism seems almost endearing.
“I was getting a bit cold in the outer channels so I rolled up my sleeves and helped the forwards,” he says.
Henshaw comes from a family of props, his father and his uncle. Perhaps there’s a genetic link but his view is that Leinster did what they had to do. They dug it out and as a centre, Henshaw was all on for piano shifting and cleaning out.
“Well, we got the win, didn’t we?” he says matter-of-factly. “We had to put down a statement, lay down a marker. By doing that, we had to play how they play in their 22 and defend how they defend in our 22.
“So that was obviously in the tighter channels and going hard at it. I got stuck into the mix of it myself a few times.”
It is a mark of Leinster’s ambition to play as they need to win matches, especially away and in a local paddock with an alehouse atmosphere like Sandy Park. Last year the team were also bitten for not being prosaic enough when they needed to be. Belts and braces serve them well.
It’s a way of looking at breaking teams down up front as a means to a positive outcome. Henshaw points out the virtues of not just physical aggression but technique and precision. Anyone can charge into the breakdown but doing it 20 times in a match without fouling takes more than willingness and brawn.
“We did what we had to do to secure victory and that’s what we will have to do this season. We need to be more ruthless,” he says.
“Definitely on the weekend it was up the jumper stuff and we needed to do that, break them down up front before we were able to get some yards wider out.
“This week it will be a different approach from Exeter. They’re coming to play. They will have a chip on their shoulder.”
Air of unpredictability
There is an air of unpredictability of how Exeter will “come to play” as Henshaw puts it. Do what they did in Sandy Park and look for ball retention only do it better or do they change tack and mix up their game? And how will they counter Leinster’s aerial game?
It worked last week for Leinster when coaches instructed one group in training to mirror how Exeter might play and another group to work out how to deal with it. The Aviva factor also raises the stakes. Not every player in Leinster has, like Henshaw, played so often in rugby’s national stadium.
“Our week last week was a lot more physical, there were a lot of pick and goes like they do. You get the opposition in training to mimic what they do,” Henshaw explains.
“Exeter are a really quality team and their ball retention was pretty outstanding over the year. We put down a statement of intent, we went in the air a good bit and got some good rewards. So we were happy.”
And in Aviva the winners win bigger but they also lose larger too. The stadium has a way of magnifying the dimensions of defeat and victory.
“Yeah absolutely, there are more eyes on us. Take it back to the Wasps game last season, the Northampton game this time last year, we played outstanding both times. Ultimately playing in that stadium drives our performance and makes us perform. We’ll be looking to do that again.”
Winning streak ended
Henshaw is all very reasonable and understated about coldly ending Exeter’s 17 match winning streak at home. His excitement is in check. Leinster’s eye is on a final sometime in May. A dug out winter win in December, no matter how satisfying, won’t feed them for a whole season. There must be more. Any way will do.
And Henshaw is his father’s son, a Munster man as it happens. Rolling his sleeves up is like a call to prayer, a bloodline disposition.
“My old man and uncle were prop forwards so there must be a bit of a gene inside me which doesn’t mind the down and dirty stuff,” he says. “I played a bit in the back row when I was underage so there’s a little bit of experience there.
“It’s not ideal when your backs are going into the pick-and-go position or the forwards positions. But I don’t mind giving the forwards a hand now and again.”
It is all there. Leinster and the modern game.