Traditional values serve Robbie Henshaw well

Leinster centre looking forward to Exeter games and a hectic festive programme

This is the meaty middle of the season. After tomorrow's daunting assignment in Sandy Park against the reigning English champions and high-flying Premiership leaders, Leinster host Exeter at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday (kick-off 3.15) in their marquee European home game.

A minor little matter with Munster follows in Thomond Park on St Stephen’s Day, with Connacht and Ulster visiting the RDS on New Year’s Day and Saturday January 6th, followed by Leinster’s concluding pool games in Europe at home to Glasgow and away to Montpellier on the ensuing two weekends.

"This is where you can help to make your season a memorable one," says Robbie Henshaw. "These crunch games are the ones where you need to get your points and then kick on into the final stages.

“Exeter are a quality outfit. We’re going to have our hands full, just looking at how they play and how they retain the ball, it’s pretty exceptional. They take teams through 20-plus phases regularly and our defence is going to have to be rock solid and we’re going to have to get the ball back off them when we do have opportunities.

“The toughest part of the game is probably long defence sets. We’re lucky in that we train that way on Tuesdays as well, so it gets us ready for that.”

He has generously taken a break from a fairly hectic schedule last Wednesday, for he’s in the midst of studying for three exams next week, as part of his final year of studies in Economics and Geography at UCD, which are sandwiched in between these clashes with Exeter.

He had just finished training which, due to this week's game being on a Sunday, was effectively their Tuesday session. Run by Stuart Lancaster, such are their intensity that they quickly became known as 'Stuesdays' within the Leinster playing squad.

“I don’t know who came up with the name, but just because of the intensity of them I think. It’s both attack and defence. It changes, which keeps you on your toes. It gets you match-ready and gets you up to the intensity that you need to get to.”

Anticlimactic finale

‘Stuesdays’ are a mixture of attack and defence, where Lancaster has honed Leinster’s ability to transition from defence to attack and generally transform them into the most potent team in Europe. Compared to the previous season, 2015-16, when Leinster scored 60 tries in 30 games, following Lancaster’s arrival last season – and Henshaw himself – they more than doubled that average to over four-per-game; 129 in 31 matches.

Yet for all last season’s wonderful rugby, memories of its anticlimactic finale, featuring semi-final defeats in Europe and the Pro12, are vivid.

Last season Leinster completed a double over Northampton on the corresponding weekends, and beat Wasps at the Aviva in the quarter-finals.

“Without that crowd it’s really tough,” says Henshaw, recalling the 50,266 capacity attendance that roared them on to that 32-17 quarter-final win.

“We’ll need that home crowd behind us next week in the Aviva, because it’s going to be all to play for.”

Unsurprisingly, Henshaw settled in very easily at Leinster after his time with Connacht, helped as he was by knowing so many Irish team-mates. He lived with Jordi Murphy, and ironically Murphy has emulated Henshaw in deciding to move on – to Ulster next season.

“It’s sad to see him leave, but I think it’s a great move for him. I know Jordi has great aspirations for playing in green, and he’ll still only be up the road. I’ll stay in good contact with him.”

As a room-mate, Henshaw says Murphy was “very relaxed and very chilled, just as he comes across. And not a bad cook either, I suppose,” he admits, smiling. “He did a stuffed peppers with Bolognese meat sauce very well.”

They lived in Monkstown, before Henshaw moved into his own place in Clonskeagh, where he lives with his sister Ali.

In between was the Lions’ tour, in which Henshaw acquitted himself ably, especially in defence, but had limited opportunity in attack. Drawing the short straw for the second game against the Auckland Blues, like so many others he remained with the midweek team for the ensuing defeat to the Highlanders, the win over the Chiefs and the draw with the Hurricanes, when he suffered the shoulder injury which ruled him out of the remainder of the tour.

Attack platforms

“It was a bit bittersweet,” he says. “Getting injured in the second last week was tough. I suppose the tour didn’t really go the way I wanted it to go. I got mixed up with a couple of different combinations, and didn’t really get good attack platforms, but it was great to see how players from other countries work, and to go into a different environment and put myself out there.”

The best part?

“Getting to know the guys from other countries, and actually meeting the New Zealand people as well. I have cousins from Hamilton that I linked up with as well. We didn’t get to see a lot of the country. A lot of it was from behind a glass window when travelling or in hotel rooms. Constant travel, every three days.”

“Having my family there was great as well, but they were only there four or five days when I got injured, so it was bittersweet for them too.”

Henshaw nonetheless maintains he took plenty from it. You have to remind yourself that he only turned 24 during that Lions tour. This is his sixth season at provincial level, and he’s added 16 Leinster caps to the 77 he compiled in four seasons with Connacht, as well as 33 for Ireland.

"He's meant to be 26 in my eyes," said Isa Nacewa fairly incredulously last April, when Henshaw was still only 23.

“It’s a funny one alright,” admits Henshaw. “I was only saying to someone in my family that this is my sixth year playing the pro game. Where have the years gone?”

But it shows that there is still plenty of time for his game to develop further. “Whether it’s 12 or 13, I want to keep developing as a centre and keep evolving with the game. It’s just about finding a balance between being a ball carrier and a ball distributor as well.

“In certain parts of the field you have to be the player that sets up the play, striking it up the middle. Sometimes you have to do that in the 12 shirt, or even the 13 shirt. I’m trying to keep the two options going at 12, in being a distributor as well. I’m going to keep trying to get better at that.”

Garry Ringrose’s delayed start to the season meant Henshaw had a couple of runs at ‘13’ for Leinster in Europe, and renewed his successful midfield partnership with Bundee Aki for Ireland.

“He was pretty nervous before the South African game. It was a new environment and, I suppose, a quicker game than he’s used to. He enjoyed it and it was great to be there to help him out and to rekindle playing with him. Unfortunately I picked up a niggling injury before the Argentina game.”

Tomorrow, Henshaw reverts to ‘12’ and renews last season’s combination with Ringrose, his sixth different midfield partner in six outings this season.

Class player

“I enjoy playing with Garry and he’s a class player. He fitted in seamlessly last week for his first game back, and he’s going to inject a bit of energy into our defence and our attack. I’m looking forward to getting the ball into his hands and getting back out there with him.”

Whereupon he turns his attentions to the first of next week’s three exams on Monday. He’d like to be in a position where he could devote himself full-time to his studies, but it is what it is.

“I think it’s very important for life after rugby to have a degree, and for your brain also, to keep you sharp mentally.”

One imagines Henshaw’s studies were encouraged by his parents, Tony and Audrey. There is a tight bond between them and their four ‘kids’, Katie, Ali, Robbie and Emily, and the extended family.

“We’ve always been a very close-knit family, taking on music and we lived on the banks of the river Shannon, and I had a good boating life as well, which was brought down through the generations from my grandfather’s father down. Playing music and being on the water are big parts of our lives.”

Their boat is touchingly named after his late sister Jessica, who tragically passed away when she was only a year-and-a-half old, after she suffered an adverse reaction to the 3-in-1 immunisation injection.

His grandfather, Billy, who is 91, and his grandmother, Bridey, who is 88, also live on the Shannon in Coosan, as does his uncle Dave, who played for Connacht.

As ever, this Christmas Day together will be something; around 60 people Henshaw reckons.

“It’s a big gathering,” he laughs. “Granddad cooks a big ham over two days, and my cousin is in the Army so he brings an Army knife and we’re let cut away at it. So we have our ham sandwiches there from midday on, and then we go back to our own family house, which is only two minutes down the road.”

Another festive tradition is for the Henshaws to play a few ‘trad’ tunes on Christmas Eve in the local, Coosan’s Point. Indeed, ‘the Henshaws’ played a few traditional Irish music tracks at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2017 in Ennis last August.

For the first time, Henshaw played the box accordion live on television, TG4, as opposed to rugby.

“It was as nerve-wracking as preparing for any international. We only had a night to get our tunes together with my dad, my uncle, and Ali and her friend, because I was coming back down from training.”

A leader

"It was brilliant though. I didn't get to meet Sharon Shannon, but I did meet Gerry O'Connor, a great banjo player, and I met a few guys from 'Four Men and a Dog' as well. That was my first proper Fleadh Cheoil. I remember going as a kid back years ago."

Aside from his studies, his music, and making time to visit home, rugby is the day job. It’s also a relatively short enough window, and Henshaw knows it. He wants to keep improving, and eventually become more of a leader.

“You mentioned Isa Nacewa and I really admire him as a player, and how he conducts himself as a professional. Everyone in here would look up to him. His chat is clear and precise as well. He’s a really admirable character.”

He’s also 35 and, according to Henshaw, still playing his best rugby “and always setting the standards in training”.

If offered a similarly long and fruitful career with Leinster and Ireland, Henshaw would grasp it.

“It’s such a good club. I think the base we have here, and the talent, is exceptional, and it’s home-grown as well. Yeah, I want to be here for the long haul.”

It’s all about trophies though and akin to Munster, this Leinster were preceded by something of a golden generation which won three Heineken Cups in four seasons, and tagged on a Challenge Cup/League double the following season. But there has been nothing since the last of their four Pro12/14 titles in 2014.

Henshaw admits there's huge pressure. Yet no rugby team in the world operates under more pressure to win that the All Blacks and, of late, it hasn't done too much harm. They are expected to win every match and every tournament they play in, and woe betide them if they don't. But Graham Henry has always maintained that's a good thing and Henshaw agrees.

“It’s what drives us on and makes us succeed. Yeah, if we strip it back, and get our detail right, and if every individual nails everything right, that’s when things will click, and we’ll be a real force.”

Starting again today.