Robbie Henshaw focused on making the big hits

Visit of sporting icons imbued players with pride in country and determination to succeed

Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw: centre is credited with 14 to 16 tackles against Italy. “Sixteen tackles, that won’t do. I’ll have to improve that, going to have to look to put in a harder shift again,” he said. Photograph: Inpho

Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw: centre is credited with 14 to 16 tackles against Italy. “Sixteen tackles, that won’t do. I’ll have to improve that, going to have to look to put in a harder shift again,” he said. Photograph: Inpho

 

A time in their lives these rugby men will never forget. It’s a week in which they beat Italy, watched the Republic of Ireland conquer Germany and Northern Ireland dismiss Greece, and all before they must find a way past France.

There could have been a wonderful public relations exercise on Wednesday evening in Celtic Manor. The next morning a tweet alerted all to the departure of Tony McCoy, Sonia O’Sullivan, Henry Shefflin, Barry McGuigan and Niall Quinn.

Some people get it, some never will.

But the gathering of our island’s most iconic sporting heroes had a singular purpose (besides spreading a rare public smile across the Munster captain’s game face). It was for the players. But it was about all of us. “It was mad,” said Peter O’Mahony. “We were shown a video before they arrived in. It kept going – one, two, three, four . . . when is this going to stop? It was a great night spent with some very special people.

“They were people you would have looked up to and supported, got out of bed early in the morning to see them race or play. A great evening.”

McCoy has been around so long, riding his first winner a year before Robbie Henshaw’s birth in 1993, that his recent retirement jarred all the more. Not immortal after all. Same goes for Henry Shefflin – perhaps the greatest Kilkenny ever had. Among constant parade of princely hurlers, he was called king.

It reminded us about the cruelty of time.

At least Sonia can never leave us. Her aloof brilliance, her dominance, her visceral failures at Olympics, her eventual Gothenburg gold in 1995.

Robbie was but two.

Pre-Henshaw: the Loftus Road night when McGuigan dropped Eusebio Pedroza or when Steve Cruz profited from the Clones Cyclone’s windless flow in a stifling Las Vegas car park.

Moments that instantly tells us where we were. Way past bed time, listening to feral roars of father, uncle, brother. Watching our giants, our men, so strangely emotive while watching momentous Irish sporting endeavour. The torch was easily passed.

Days of our lives

Quinn the Eskimo

The days of our lives. Like Sunday will be. Be it Cardiff or Warsaw or both.

“What is special about Irish people is the massive level of colloquialism we have,” said Rob Kearney. “Suppose bringing all those Irish icons over to us in Wales just brought that back to us. A big thing about us this week is about being Irish. That helped build it.”

That Martin O’Neill’s Republic and Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland achieved such heights a night later further builds the sense of being Irish. And that really matters in the national rugby camp. It matters because Ireland don’t play under the Tricolour. In every stadium at this World Cup the IRFU and Ulster flags are hoisted instead.

Rory Best gets it, and so clearly loves being apart of it, but the remote control was in safe hands Thursday night.

“We were switching between the two games,” said the hooker of Armagh farming stock. “To qualify for France is brilliant. The boys have been great all the way through the campaign and it’s great to see them get across the line.

“It was great to see Steven Davis scoring the first goal. It was a very inspirational for us to watch both games.”

You look at Henshaw, so naturally gifted, and wonder if any of this registers at all. His motivation so clearly doesn’t come from others, it’s deeply ingrained within.

“He has an appetite for hurting people.” said Brian O’Driscoll in October 2014, predicting the new dawn. “He has an appetite to go after a hit. If it’s there to be hit he is going to give it everything.”

Now Jared Payne is waylaid, Henshaw’s hits in Ireland’s midfield take on greater importance tomorrow. Johnny Sexton and Keith Earls won’t be found wanting for courage but both have recently enough been carted out of gladiatorial games for exuding that very trait.

“I am expecting a combative game,” said Joe Schmidt matter-of-factly.

That’s why he went with Luke Fitzgerald over Simon Zebo on the bench.

Schmidt knows Earls might not make it through the horrendously brutal midfield exchanges with Mathieu Bastareaud.

“I think one of the reasons is that we believe the midfield is going to be quite attritional. We think that’s going to be a really tough day at the office and Luke Fitzgerald covers that, as well as the back three, so his versatility is an asset for us there.”

The tablets say Henshaw made 13 tackles against Italy. We counted 16. Maybe a few were shared. It was all he could do as Italy kept a vice-like grip on Ireland.

“But it needs to be upped,” Henshaw insisted. “I know myself that it needs to be upped another level this week. Sixteen tackles, that won’t do. I’ll have to improve that, going to have to look to put in a harder shift again.”

His words make you want to rise from your chair. Like seeing McCoy coming up the rails or Sonia gliding down the back straight. “This is going to be a step up physically for us. Last week was a perfect primer. The Italians came out of the blocks with nothing to lose and shocked us with their physicality.

“We need to be ready for the French. Their pack is a big strong force of theirs, they’ll have big strong runners coming around the corner at myself and Sexto.”

That’s what decides this game. Those collisions.

“We won’t be too threatened by anyone,” said Henshaw, sounding like a young Shefflin. “We need to front-up and make our hits. We need to get off the line and build our line speed, it needs to be a notch better than last week.

Big guy

What’s even more encouraging is this 21-year-old’s sense of calm. Nerves? Some. “More excitement than anything.”

He enjoys the privilege of existing in this elite athlete’s bubble that the rest of us dreamed about while watching Pedroza stumble or Quinn’s lanky leg stretch.

“Yeah, it’s unbelievable. I think the nerves coming into the stadium and that shiver you get when you get off the bus and the cameras are there, every player loves seeing the fans there cheering you in. It’s brilliant and I think that’s kind of what gets you ready.

“There would be nerves there, yeah, definitely. . . But when you get your first touch of the ball, you get your settler, it’s all gone, it’s out the window and that’s it.”

“I’ve definitely got more to offer.”

They all do. “It’s certainly the biggest game I’ve ever played in,” said O’Mahony.

Certainly a time in their lives these rugby men will never forget.

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