Relax, Robbie Henshaw doesn’t do nervous. During the anthems, as his young features were beamed across the rugby world, he seemed poised to unload an avalanche.
“Not really. I was mental prepping myself. Getting ready for what was to come. I knew they were a massive physical threat.”
That’s your game face? “Yeah, that’s it.” We should get used to it so. “The physicality, it was insane,” he continued.
Physically, he was insane. The collision with Marcell Coetzee will be a favourite for those familiar with Henshaw’s rise since the Marist days in Athlone.
Coetzee had been burying Irish ball carriers all evening. When Henshaw barrelled into him, a few feet from the South Africa try line, contact was taken on the Connacht centre’s terms. The play switched left and Henshaw could be seen looping back into the line but he stalled to torpedo into Trevor Nyakane as the prop was lying over Conor Murray’s ball.
Romain Poite whistled for the penalty. Johnny Sexton made it 19-10. Still 10 minutes to play and the number two ranked nation in the world were cooked.
Flash back to the 41st minute. Henshaw, all 100kg of him poured into a 6ft 3in frame, was seemingly promoted to international status to bring a power dimension to Ireland’s midfield.
Think again. The former Westmeath minor footballer glanced up and prodded the ball delicately down the left tramline.
“Got my eyes up. Gave Johnny a shout early and said, ‘Give me the ball.’ Looked through and saw no one was back there, put my head down and kicked through it. It sat up nicely for their 15 to chip it out.”
Rhys Ruddock’s try came from that lineout.
Clearly not shy on the field, he’s reserved off it, as is to be expected in early media dealings, but here’s a player who craves the chance to fail spectacularly. Sexton and Henshaw already have a Butch and Sundance feel to them, with the junior partner unafraid to communicate.
“Well, you have to be able to do that if you are playing 12. You need the ball in your hands early if you see a mismatch or an overlap. You have to step up or you’ll get criticised in the review on Monday. I just made my voice clear and got clarity to Johnny. Early.”
Another moment saw him empty Jean De Villiers out the back of a ruck. Springbok centurion or not, he was denying Murray quick ball. Henshaw sorted it out. Sound familiar?
The point is Henshaw, who turned 21 last summer, has arrived. As so many hoped – and Connacht’s last resident in an Ireland jersey Eric Elwood predicted – he could be the man to makes the sense of loss from Brian O’Driscoll’s retirement not seem so cruel. The ongoing debate will be the number on his back. O’Driscoll had worked with him to ultimately become a fulltime 13, but 12 and 15 remain firmly on the agenda.
“I’m leaving all the options open. I’m happy to play any of those positions. I’ve had to grow up and start doing things for myself, stepping up. Just taking things into my own hands. Brian held my hand last year and brought me along, gave me some really good tips.”
A few weeks ago, O’Driscoll went so far as to say Henshaw is the man to play centre for Ireland in the long term. “It was really nice for him to give me the shout out, but I need to keep my head down, keep doing the work, keep striving to improve.”
O’Driscoll called him a quick learner, clever, able to read situations, good basic skills, nice feet. Powerful, too. He noted that “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.”
Then came the king of rugby compliments: “He has an appetite for hurting people,” said O’Driscoll. “He has an appetite to go after a hit.”
Henshaw was asked about such high praise, having performed with raw aggression against the ultimate rugby bullies. “I don’t go out to hurt people but I like a big hit. I won’t lie. I like the physical aspect of the game. That’s really what I cherish, putting in a big hit. Brian’s seen that a couple of times.”
We all have now.