Robbie Henshaw: Pro16 could help Ireland get to grips with Springboks in 2023

Centre knows World Cup is a long way away but welcomes South African involvement

Unintended consequences. Maybe the Pro 14 has just found greater relevance in the overarching ‘grand anxiety’ tormenting Irish rugby. The World Cup has been Ireland’s mortification of the flesh and not in a spiritually good way, a reminder, if you like, of the continued sin of never getting past the quarter-final.

In that, the much-maligned Pro14 in its next iteration with more South African teams could help Ireland gear up for what they are about to meet, the current World Champions in their group at France 2023.

It will become odd alliance with South Africa, to which over the years Irish teams have tended not to send frontline players. Robbie Henshaw has never had his cheeks burned in the November Jo' Burg summer for a Pro14 match.

But in a futuristic Pro16, Henshaw believes it is reasonable that Leinster and Ireland will adopt an attitude of betterment through the penance of long haul travel. The idea of a trip or two mid season for international player enlightenment on South African rugby for use in three-ish years time, seems a real potential benefit.


“Yeah, one hundred per cent,” says Irish centre Henshaw. “If they brought the teams in, I think it’ll definitely make the two groups way more competitive and bring different challenges. Obviously, you have to travel down and play in South Africa. That brings its own challenges and playing South African players we’ll gain more knowledge for the future, so it has massive bonuses if they do get permitted to be brought in.

“No, I haven’t [gone down for Pro 14]. I think for the last tour I was just coming back from injury, so I missed that unfortunately.

“From past (international) experience, playing in South Africa is incredible. They’re absolutely rugby mad down there. Playing there is class. As a player, you want to go down. There’s all sorts of challenges as well - you’re playing at altitude in some places, like Johannesburg.”

It might seem a little like clutching to decades of the rosary to improve all things World Cup and from the distance of 2020, the idea might seem far too abstract with Northampton this week promising more immediate demands in the second round of the Heineken Cup. But in the spirit of marginal gains...

In September South Africa’s four Super Rugby sides started exploratory talks about joining the Pro14, which could become the Pro16. The South African Rugby Union (SARU) voted for negotiations for the Bulls, Stormers, Sharks and Lions to join an expanded tournament and a special meeting ratified the decision.

Southern Kings and Cheetahs have competed in the Pro14 since the 2017-18 season, although Cheetahs will bow out of the tournament long-term and are considering their options and Southern Kings have been placed in voluntary liquidation. The other four clubs, Stormers, Lions, Bulls and Sharks, are the teams now in the conversation.

Comfort zone

“There are all sorts of challenges so you step out of your comfort zone in the Northern Hemisphere when you go down to the Southern Hemisphere. It definitely is a different experience as a player,” says Henshaw.

“Yeah, one hundred percent, it could definitely help us getting experience against South African players. I’m sure between now and then they’ve some new players coming up. They seem to be building as well. I think for us if we’re down there and playing against teams regularly it would definitely be a bonus for us to gain that sort of experience and knowledge of the players.”

Nobody is forgetting about Scotland, also in the World Cup group and who Henshaw says are "on a similar path to us in terms of where they're going" under coach Gregor Townsend. That is, on a path towards building a new Irish team, a restart, better broadband.

Henshaw too at outside centre as the jaw of Garry Ringrose mends. And Ringrose is getting close. Maybe this week, maybe not.

“We’re a good bit from it, is my initial thoughts,” adds Henshaw of the next World Cup. He’s thinking Northampton focus should not be a multi-tasking event. But there’s no anxiety over Rassie Erasmus and Ireland being ‘f**king soft.’ Just the narrative of South Africa, a possible Pro16, even a redemptive World Cup.