Robbie Henshaw heads for Paris with a spring in his step
Centre hoping to bring Leinster form to Test arena in opener against France
Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw pictured at Carton House. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Responsibility sits snugly on Robbie Henshaw’s broad shoulders, comfort drawn from a variety of sources, from his innate talent to the forensic detail into which Ireland coach Joe Schmidt delves in scrutinising opposing teams ahead of Test matches.
The 24-year-old is unfazed by the demands of being the senior partner in the Irish midfield, a role he’s fulfilled with distinction, whether accompanying Garry Ringrose or Bundee Aki. He describes being considered a leader within the team “as a really exciting feeling,” recognition of his importance as a player, both in attack and defence. The priority is a simple one. “I can step up and lead through my action, focus on doing my best for the team.”
His form for Leinster this season has been consistently excellent and he’s eager to translate that to the Test arena. On Saturday he’ll win his 32nd cap against France in Paris. More Irish players have scar tissue from a game in the French capital, evident from just three wins in 40 years, than virtually any other venue.
Two seasons ago, an Ireland team lost 10-9, having led 9-3 at the interval and the match-winning try from French fullback Maxime Medard, still resonates with the Leinster centre. He explained: “Yeah, I’ve thought about that. I slightly lost my footing and slipped.”
Despite France’s travails that culminated in the sacking of Guy Noves following the November Test series, there will be an initial tolerance of and support for the new regime under Jacques Brunel from the stands, particularly if the home side rediscover the traditional values of their rugby heritage.
Henshaw admitted: “The challenge playing away in France, is that is where they play their best rugby. They are a really strong team across the board and can create something out of nothing. They thrive when the game gets loose and they offload a lot.
“[In] their back three alone, they’ve quality,” he said before name-checking Teddy Thomas. Henshaw continued: “We’ve done our homework and know what they’re going to bring. Definitely we’ve looked at some images of what happened there a few years ago and how it was a bit of an arm wrestle and then we let it [slip] away. But we’ll look to paint a different picture this week.
“We need to be tight in our defence and we need to be ready for their loose, offloading rugby. We are well aware that we need to start well and we have been talking about it. The first game is always the toughest.”
It’s a specific assertion relating to last season’s Six Nations when Ireland lost their opening fixture at Murrayfield. “We tried to claw it back in Scotland, but left ourselves with too much to do. We want to hit the ground running this year. That’s all that is our heads at the moment. We are all aware of what we need to do.”
A thigh injury sustained by La Rochelle centre Geoffrey Doumayrou may preclude his involvement, in which case Racing 92’s Henry Chavancy is likely to partner Remi Lamerat in the French midfield. Henshaw is well versed with the Clermont Auvergne player’s qualities. “Lamerat, I’ve played against him a handful of times and he’s a handful, a really good player.
“We’ll go out there with our game plan and look to execute what we’ve planned. We’ll be physical in midfield, we’ll look to find space in behind them, play smart and constantly keep them under pressure. We’ll see what France throws at us and we’ll hit them back. But we’ll be physical in midfield, yes.”
Henshaw has no problem switching between inside and outside centre and on Saturday will be primarily operating in the latter role. “There’s certainly more space to attack with. You find yourself in a bit more space in second [and] third phase. Obviously defensively you’re one of the main cogs in the wheel, so you can make really important reads at 13.”
Where once he sought one-on-one advice from the jersey’s most celebrated occupant, Brian O’Driscoll, it is now more of a group process when the midfield maestros get together. “I’m a bit different. I used to kind of approach Drico one-on-one. Now we all work together.
“If there’s an issue or if anyone wants to problem solve something we all do it together collectively as a group. We all work in our units, so we get together round a laptop and go through it as a unit. We all help one another out.”
He’s trained with Aki and Chris Farrell and concludes the conversation on an upbeat note. “We’re [Ireland] in a really good place at the moment.”