Brian O’Driscoll anoints Robbie Henshaw
“Darce, for me, is still the number one 12. But I think Jared (Payne) is a better 15.”
Brian O’Driscoll and Robbie Henshaw during an Ireland training session. The former captain has tipped the young Connacht player to fill the number 13 shirt in his absence. Photograph: Dan Sheridan / Inpho
Brian O’Driscoll believes that Robbie Henshaw is the man to fill the Ireland number 13 jersey in November and beyond.
The anointment of the 21-year-old Athlone native came during an exclusive interview with The Irish Times, to publicise his autobiography The Test, on the same day Joe Schmidt included New Zealand-born Jared Payne in the 37-man national squad ahead of upcoming Tests against South Africa, Georgia and Australia.
O’Driscoll’s believes that Henshaw has adapted quicker to the intricacies of outside centre play, since both men switched from fullback last season. Payne, who recently qualified for Ireland via residency, previously played centre for Auckland.
“Robbie’s a very quick learner,” said O’Driscoll, who personally worked with Henshaw last season. “He has taken a lot on board. Reads situations well. Very good basic skills. Nice feet. Powerful.
“Defensively, he’s come on leaps and bounds in the past 18 months and really understands the position a lot more. And he’s an unbelievably nice fella. And he’s a huge man.”
Above all, it’s the physicality Henshaw can bring to the Irish midfield that gets O’Driscoll’s seal of approval. “You know what, he has an appetite for hurting people. He has an appetite to go after a hit. If it’s there to be hit he is going to give it everything.”
Is that aggression your favourite trait in a rugby player?
In an alternative universe, where O’Driscoll went the way of Shergar back in 2004, Gordon D’Arcy would have become Ireland’s permanent 13.
“Yeah,” O’Driscoll agreed.
But, yet again, it seems like D’Arcy will become the victim of circumstance. Luke Marshall was already dropped to the Ravens before last weekend’s knee injury but Stuart Olding makes the squad despite Stuart McCloskey’s residency at 12 in Ulster. The other option is Ian Madigan.
“Most natural 13 in Ireland now? It’s between two people. It’s tricky because Gordon has been a 12 for 10 years so it’s hard to get away from him being a better 12 than 13.
“But answering your question, if I wasn’t around for that period of time, would I think Gordon would have been a 13 predominantly? Yes.
“But I have a lot of time for Robbie Henshaw.”
This is the candid O’Driscoll only friends and family know. The “character” he allowed to evolve since becoming Ireland captain as a 23 year old in November, 2002 (“Careful. Safe. The stereotypical southside Dublin rugby jock,” he wrote in his book) has been laid to rest.
“There is potential for tinkering,” he continued. “ I know they like Stuart Olding, although he has been injured and is only coming off the bench behind McCloskey.
“Obviously Jared (Payne) is going to need to play and they are going to be playing him at 13. Darce, for me, is still the number one 12. But I think Jared is a better 15, personally. So either Jared or Robbie, and probably both at some stage.”
Clearly on Schmidt’s orders, Henshaw, Payne and D’Arcy have been selected at outside centre for their provinces this season. Darren Cave has lost out in Ulster, Brendan Macken in Leinster, and perhaps sensing a cull, Eoin Griffin left Galway for London Irish.
Considering his wife Amy is due their second child in late November and media commitments, O’Driscoll won’t be taking on a coaching role in Carton House.
“Joe has the odd conversation with me. Picks my brain every so often.”
He will, however, be doing some individual tutorials with Leinster players. “I haven’t done that yet but I said I would do it with a couple of players. There is definitely one player I will be doing a little clip stuff with and seeing if I can help.”
Same position as you played? “He is.” It’s not D’Arcy so do the math.
The full interview with Brian O’Driscoll will appear in Saturday’s sports section.