Robbie Henshaw is focused on winning above all else
Multitalented centre is looking forward to Six Nations debut and ‘creating some history’
Robbie Henshaw says it was a great feeling to get the win, even sitting in the stands, in last year’s Six Nations, but “it’s a new challenge this year”. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
The first thing that strikes you about Robbie Henshaw is how grounded and level-headed he is. Aside from a striking physicality which is unusual for an Irish midfielder, that maturity and sensibility ought to be a help. After all, it can’t be easy being the anointed one.
With Gavin Duffy injured at the start of the season before last, no sooner was Henshaw pitched into the team and Eric Elwood declaring him a definite international of the future, since when Brian O’Driscoll has publicly declared his faith in Henshaw’s ability to have a long international career in the Ireland midfield.
Recalling Elwood’s declaration that he was destined to play for Ireland even though was barely out of school and still only 19, Henshaw admits with a smile: “I was totally shell-shocked. ‘What’s he on about here?’ And then obviously Brian saying that has given me the confidence to kick on and just not look back and keep moving forward.
“I suppose it does put a bit of pressure on me,” he concedes, though you’d never think it in his demeanour or his performances, “but I just try and stay positive all the time and keep putting out consistent performances and that’s how I keep my confidence up.”
It says everything about the 21-year-old’s rapid progress that he looked the one nailed-on certainty to play in the Ireland midfield against Italy, be it at ‘12’ or ‘13’, and accordingly he is, along with the celebrated pair of Paul O’Connell and Johnny Sexton, one of the three players to feature in Three’s striking series of TV commercials called “All It Takes is Everything”.
“I’ve seen some of it, yeah,” says Henshaw of the ads, in which Sexton turns into a butterfly whereas the young centre turns into a ball of fire. “It looks good. I’d take the fire ahead of the butterflies any day.”
That he has been identified as one of the three poster boys, as it were, for the series, is quite something considering this will be his Six Nations debut. “Yeah, I know. It’s all part of the game I suppose these days.”
Last season he was 24th man in four of Ireland’s Six Nations matches, including their coronation as champions in Paris in O’Driscoll’s last game, which gave him a taste of things to come and how Joe Schmidt’s meticulous attention to detail also incorporated planning for the future.
“I think that has prepared me, definitely for this year. I know what matchday is like. I know what the build up is like, the hotel. Even though you know you’re not going to be playing but there is the slightest chance that you will be playing, so you have to be prepared. It was, very memorable when their number eight was held up in the end and we got that turnover. It was a great feeling to get the win, even sitting in the stands, but it’s a new challenge this year.”
“I do want it more this year. I know I was there or thereabouts last year but I was on the outskirts of it, but definitely I want it this year and I want to try and compete for it.”
O’Driscoll’s generosity of spirit, and being acutely conscious that even he must pass on the jersey (and assuredly took it on to new levels) has helped Henshaw no end. Following on from chats at pitch-side, or over coffee or over a computer last season, Henshaw says they have remained “close” and receives texts before and after games.
“He’d give me the good and the bad of a game, how I did and what I could improve on. It’s great that he actually came on board and helped me last year in camp. He didn’t have to at all. He just went out of his way and that shows his character as well.
“He was a genius at most things in the game, and he went through lines of attack, lines in defence, when to come up hard off the line and when to hold back and just not bite in. Things like that and just a bit of passing skills. We used to do one-on-one passing and stuff like that after training. All parts of the game he would help me with.”
Unfamiliar number ‘12’Jared Payne
The nephew of the former Connacht prop David, Henshaw is built for the modern game. His career has already been celebrated on YouTube with his penchant for big hits, and he admits the collisions are one of his favourite aspects of the game.
He describes his uncle as “quite short and light, but for the size of him he was really strong. He has massive arms on him like and was short and stocky but really well built.” He also recalls his uncle being on an All-Ireland League winning team alongside Keith Wood in the frontrow.
Henshaw’s dad, Tony, also played prop for Buccaneers and occasionally for Connacht, and having introduced his son to the game at about six in the club’s mini-rugby section, coached him all the way through to their under-19s; remaining a key confidant. He thus attributes his speed and athleticism to his mother’s side of the family, and specifically Audrey’s father Joe Craven, “a really good Gaelic footballer” with Athlone GAA club and Westmeath.
“I wasn’t sure if I was always going to play rugby. I always drifted between Gaelic and soccer as well.” He and the Connacht outhalf Jack Carty were the central defensive pairing for Marist in Athlone, where they won an All-Ireland under-13 schools title. “I was the hammer head. I just headed the ball. He stopped everything coming through on the floor.”
Henshaw gave up on the soccer before the Gaelic football, which he admits was a significant complement both in the seasons, and as a skillset, to his rugby. He grew up outside of Athlone, near the Shannon, in Coosan, five minutes from his school. His Dad was an engineer in the cable business, and his mum is a counsellor. “We had a boat and we used to go up and down the river every summer for our holidays and stuff like that.”
His first Connacht game as a fan was the Challenge Cup semi-final against Toulon. Being from Athlone, back then it was quite a trek to Galway. “Sonny Bill Williams was playing in the Sportsground, yeah I was amazed by it all.”
Tana Umaga was a big hero growing up and Henshaw has a picture of himself and the former All Blacks centre after approaching him in Lansdowne Road not far from his seat at the 2007 November test.
Connacht Senior Schools Cup
“If I could go back there and relive it I would, it would be one of the things on top of the list. It was just a great feeling going and winning the cup after losing two finals in a row. We beat Sligo Grammar then in the final in the Sportsground. It was a good memorable day. The weather was nice. It was nice and sunny and it wasn’t too windy. It was beautiful. I just remember the celebrations and the fans coming running in. And there was a really nice civic reception for us back in Athlone as well.”
Cue to his time with the Connacht Academy and under-age set-up, and Nigel Carolan.
“I really like his work and I like his method of coaching as well. He has an eyes-up approach to rugby and letting the players decide as to not going through a system where you have to do certain things; play what you see in front of you and it really is good for young players to try and play what they see and try and create some opportunities and hit holes and make good opportunities.”
Aside from his infectious passion, Elwood took a particular interest in Henshaw. “All along the way he just helped me and kept in my ear. His main quote to me was ‘if you’re good enough you’re old enough. Don’t worry about your age. Just do what you normally do and do what you have been doing and you’ll be able to succeed at this standard’. I’ve a lot of respect for Eric, for firstly having the balls to pick me and bring me in after schools, a massive call and I’m really grateful for what he has done for me.”
Henshaw wouldn’t have five caps under his belt if he hadn’t played so much rugby with Connacht, and two seasons ago this led to a Wolfhounds debut and then the under-20s in his home ground of Dubarry Park, when Ireland beat their English counterparts 16-15.
“That was right up there apart from a little hiccup; I got sinbinned,” he recalls with a smile of the only yellow card of his career to date. “I went up in the air and caught their fullback. I misjudged it. But we came back to win in the end. I loved that, especially as there is a good picture of myself and my Dad and my granddad after the game.” It was the first time his grandfather saw him play live. “My Dad says that what is keeping both my grandparents alive at the moment is the rugby. They are so obsessed and fascinated with it, and they’re well into their 80s now.”
His grandfather introduced him to traditional music, and Henshaw can play the accordion, the fiddle and the piano with a fairly unique method.
“He whistled into my ear and I’d play back what I could hear. It was quite incredible, this listening technique. It would have been an old style of a learning tradition.”
It comes as less of a surprise that he is also studying Arts with Economics and Geography, in NUI Galway, which he has somehow managed to dovetail with his meteoric rise in rugby. You sense his parents at work there.
They were also there when he made his debut away to the USA two summers ago, and for his second cap against Canada a week later. His third cap, initially as a blood replacement for O’Driscoll, and then late on for Rob Kearney in the defeat to Australia in November 2013, is not such a fond memory.
“It wasn’t enjoyable, I didn’t enjoy it at all. I felt like I could have given more. The step up to the Australia game was 10 times bigger and it was faster, and I missed a tackle on Michael Hooper in the corner, in the far corner and I felt I could have got him,” he admits candidly, looking on the empty Aviva pitch from a quiet function room in the stands.
“Ever since that day I prepared myself to be the best I could for the November that just went and just tried to relive that and say, ‘what would you do different and how would you prepare yourself?’ And I just kind of left nothing behind and just made sure everything was ticked off.”
Just for a moment, he does come across as a 21-year-old.
However, reliving his five caps and these fledgling steps in what has all the potential for a significant career, it’s clear that while it’s all very well playing in the green jersey at the Aviva, as Paris last year reinforced for him, it’s all about being part of a winning Ireland team, not just being part of an Ireland team.
“It’s about being part of a winning team. It’s what makes the feeling so special, to have something good to talk about and brag about, to get out there and put out some really good performances and create some history.”