Robbie Henshaw ‘mentally and emotionally ready’ for familiar battle

His clash with Damian de Allende brings a Leinster-Munster element to the first Test

In the season that was in it, there just had to be a Leinster-Munster element to the first Test between South Africa and the British and Irish Lions.

When Robbie Henshaw and Damian de Allende look across the half-way line before the 5pm kick-off at the Cape Town Stadium on Saturday they will be the most familiar mano-a-mano match-ups of the day, and by some distance.

Five times the two provinces have met since the resumption last August, with de Allende playing in all of them, including Munster’s Rainbow Cup win most recently in April. Henshaw started all four of the previous encounters, and would no doubt like to maintain his unbeaten run against the World Cup winning Springbok.

“I’ve played Damian about five times already this year just within the Pro14 so yeah, it’s a funny one, probably match six,” said Henshaw, entitled to get his maths slightly wrong, albeit this is different gravy.


“But this is solely Lions versus South Africa,” he stressed. “It’s going to be a huge test but I’ll have a chat after with him as always. He’s a great player and a great guy as well.”

Adding to the familiarity, Henshaw has his old Connacht sidekick and buddy Bundee Aki (who has played against de Allende in two of the four Connacht-Munster derbies since resumption and the recent South Africa ‘A’ v Lions game) for some helpful sparring.

“He’s been great. I’ve been asking him to give me a hand wherever he can, in training. He trained the house down on Tuesday and was unbelievable and he’s just bringing that physicality that we’re going to expect from the Springboks.

“He’s been brilliant off the pitch as well, just looking through video and helping in any way he can. Bundee’s been brilliant.”

Including imitating de Allende? “He has, yeah. He’s been loving it.”

Henshaw and de Allende first bumped into each other, as it were, in the first game of the resumption last August at an empty Aviva, which was also the latter’s debut, and arrive at this point over 11 months on with almost identical loads.

Although they have taken contrasting routes from that game to now, Henshaw has played 24 games, all but one off the bench, for a total of 1,815 minutes playing time, while de Allende has played 27, of which five were as replacements, for a total of 1,770 minutes’ playing time.

Henshaw returned from a slight hamstring twinge to partner Elliot Daly for the first time last week when playing almost an hour together against the Stormers. At least they've had a hit out, for by comparison the frontrow, secondrow, backrow, halfbacks and outside three will all be starting a game together for the first time on tour.

But Henshaw places as much store in time together on the training pitch and off the pitch.

“It’s a really exciting partnership with Elliot. His game knowledge and attacking skill set are second to none in the game; he’s a top class player.

“His defensive reads are also quality, so I’ve only played with him two or three times in the last two tours but it’s great to partner up with him - he’s a quality player.

“We roomed together in 2017, we played a bit. He played mostly at 15 but I think I did play a bit with him at 13 in 2017. We do have a bit of craic off the pitch, he’s a great lad. It’s building nicely.”

For Henshaw, making the test team is all the sweeter given his experience four years ago, when pigeon-holed in the midweek side before a torn pectoral muscle in the 31-all draw with the Hurricanes ended his tour in the week of the second test.

Big goal

“Yeah, it’s huge for me, particularly from four years ago to have the tour ended prematurely. It was definitely a big goal for me to try and achieve a starting spot and it’s great that the hard work put in on and off the pitch for the last four years has helped me get to this point.

“Obviously I just need to go out and enjoy it and play my regular game and hopefully be on the winning side. It’s a great moment and for my family back home as well, all the messages of support coming in, it’s great.”

"There's been a lot of messages, a lot of coaches the Ireland set-up and from Leinster have been in touch to say go well and enjoy it. Then just a lot of family and mates from school. It's always nice to have the support back home cheering you on."

Ever since Henshaw tore it up with the Marist College, Buccaneers, Connacht and Irish under-age sides, before Eric Elwood gave him his Connacht debut at 19 and wasn't shy in talking up his vast potential, there's been a sense of destiny about Henshaw's career which only injuries have interrupted.

Back home in Ahtlone there will be some party.

“I think there’s a gathering in Buccaneers rugby club,” said Henshaw. “There’s an outdoor set up out the back and I think there’s a good set-up for all the games.”

But while earning a spot in the first test team is an achievement, now comes the even stiffer challenge.

“There’s huge pressure and expectation on us to get the win. We’ve worked well in training during the week and got the preparation done. It’s about being mentally and emotionally ready for what’s to come.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times