Robbie Henshaw braced for ‘that dark place’ against South Africa

Ireland centre knows that confronting Boks will require huge physical commitment

Robbie Henshaw says outside centre offers more freedom to attack but that defensively it is a more demanding role. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Robbie Henshaw says outside centre offers more freedom to attack but that defensively it is a more demanding role. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

He wears it well. It’s hard to credit that Robbie Henshaw won’t turn 23 until Sunday, but he arrives in his first trek to South Africa with the highest mileage of any Irish player since halfway through the World Cup pool stages. And he arrives too at both a high and a crossroads in his career, and with heightened responsibility in tomorrow’s first Test.

The emotional memories of his glorious farewell to Connacht are still vivid.

“It was like Galway had won the Sam. Certainly it was an experience I won’t forget.”

So much so that yesterday he reiterated the comments he made after the squad’s heroic homecoming and open-top bus ride through the streets of Galway that he may be back.

“It was just a top-class way to to finish off with them. As I said to a number of them ‘this is not goodbye, it could be see you later in the future’. Anything could happen around the corner. But to finish in the way I did with the team I’ve been with for four years, and when I was a kid, is incredible.”

It’s given him and his six Connacht team-mates bragging rights within this Irish squad, notably against the bulk suppliers. “A few of them were saying ‘Jeez, why didn’t you go easy on us?’ Blah, blah, blah. There were a few jokes but they also gave us a massive ‘well done, you were the better team on the day’. It was quite nice.”

Not only does Henshaw arrive on the crest of a wave, but on the back of two potent, big games in the Pro 12 semi-final against Glasgow and the final against Leinster, when the official stats credited him with beating five defenders in his 11 carries. Yet he is quick to acknowledge that this will not count for much tomorrow.

“I was pretty happy with the final and the semi; two really tough games. But I know it’s going to be another step-up here in terms of physicality, intensity and pace-wise. I have to be ready to go into a dark place.

“They’re going to drag us down to that and if we expect to get out of there with a result we have to put our bodies on the line and we have to go to that dark place.”

Strong running

Six Nations

“Certainly for a 12 there’s a lot of first-phase attack that you have to hit up and get the gainline. That’s when your space is quite limited. But when the game breaks up, certainly for a 13 it’s better. You’ve more space and more freedom to express yourself and to throw passes and a few dummies and offloads.”

Of Henshaw’s 18 starts for Ireland, all but three have been at inside centre. There was one at fullback and for all the talk of him being the heir apparent to you-know-who, just two games at 13, outside Gordon D’Arcy against Australia in November 2014 and Stuart McCloskey at Twickenham in this year’s Six Nations.

Defensively, it is a more demanding position, requiring him to cover a wider space.

“It’s a big difference, especially at Test level. You need to stay really connected with your 12 and your wing. If you make a read and you misread that could ultimately lead to a line break and a try.

“It all comes around to the connection between inside and outside you, and obviously not being skinned on the outside. You need to be ready to track the 15 and use your wheels”

Heaviest load

Joe Schmidt

The flip side of that, he counters, is that “there’s no rustiness there and your confidence is high. You’re not going in second guessing yourself”.

Save for a brief spell off the bench against Australia in November 2013, he has never played with Luke Marshall before and this will be his first start outside Paddy Jackson.

But he talks exuberantly about the possibilities provided by Jackson’s flat skip passes, as well as feeding off Marshall’s footwork and passing. That said, the lines in the sand will be drawn elsewhere initially.

“Up front is going to be massive. Our pack is going to need to be mentally ready for the challenge to come. I got my first start at home against South Africa in the ‘Novembers’ and I found the physicality of it was something I’d never experienced before in rugby.

“A lot of guys have been down here in our team. There’s experienced guys here, so they know what’s to come and we’re well primed for it.”

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