No longer “the new Brian O’Driscoll”, ROBBIE HENSHAW is among the first names on the team-sheets for Leinster and Ireland – and also hopes to star for the Lions when they go to New Zealand this summer. The All Blacks, winning the Six Nations, music and dog-sitting are all on the agenda when Stuart Clark joins him on his and Jordi Murphy’s sofa.
Robbie Henshaw is emitting an impressive range of pained grandad noises, as he relaxes on his Monkstown sofa with the golden retriever, Kobe, that him and his housemate Jordi Murphy have been co-parenting.
“It was a really tough game with some big hits, so I’m aching all over,” he says of the previous night’s bruising 24-24 draw between Leinster and Castres Olympique over in France. “We were disappointed not to win, but I managed to get a couple of tries, which makes up for the battering!”
With Connacht losing 19-10 over in Toulouse, Leinster now have a tasty Champions Cup Quarter-Final home tie against Wasps to look forward to, at the start of April.
“We’re playing well enough at the moment to go all the way,” Robbie reckons. “It’s incredible the strength and depth we have in the squad. The final’s in Murrayfield, so if we do manage to battle our way through there’ll be a big ticket allocation.”
Also impressing against Castres was Garry Ringrose, the 21-year-old who, having forged a fearsome midfield partnership with Robbie at Leinster, will be hoping to line-up alongside him in the Six Nations too.
“Yeah, the partnership with Garry’s going brilliantly,” Robbie nods. “He’s quiet-ish off the pitch, but a really lovely, genuine, down-to-earth lad. You can have chats and the craic with him. Moving from Connacht to Leinster is my first major change of team and environment. One of the reasons that the transition has been less difficult than I thought it might be is having Garry to feed off. There’s a great rapport between us. I normally know what he’s going to do and watch his back, and vice versa. We’ve gotten to the point where we can read each other’s body language.”
After all the “new Brian O’Driscoll” comments that greeted his emergence at Connacht, our man couldn’t help but chuckle recently when Ringrose was referred to on radio as the “new Robbie Henshaw.”
“There are so many young guys coming through at Leinster that I’m actually considered a veteran at this stage!” he reflects. “It’s great to be looked up to as a kind of a leader and to know that I’ve a bit of experience whilst still being young. The ‘new Brian O’Driscoll’ thing was obviously meant as a compliment, but it does put a bit of extra pressure on you. You just have to put all that to one side and play your natural game, which is what Garry’s been doing.”
Add in fly-half Joey Carberry and second row Ross Molony, and you’ve a quartet of super-talented young players who can star for Ireland as well as Leinster.
“Joey made his debut against the All Blacks in Chicago, which was a real baptism of fire, and fitted in seamlessly. Looking at the game, you’d have thought he had a dozen caps. Garry started against Australia – another really tough game – and scored his first test try. Neither looked out of place at all. It just goes to show the talent Leinster have produced in their academy. You’ve two wingers who’ve come through the ranks, Rory O’Loughlin and Adam Byrne, who are on fire at the moment. The whole academy system in Ireland is top class.”
RUNNING OUT AT CROKE PARK
Robbie admits to still getting goosebumps when he thinks about that famous November 5 afternoon in Soldier Field, when the All Blacks were subjected to a 40-29 thumping.
“It took a couple of days to sink in, but then my Dad and his mate said, ‘They’ll be wheeling you out in 50 years to talk about it on TV’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, this is history, we’ve done something unique’. ”
What was the gist of Joe Schmidt’s team talk that day?
“We knew what we had to do and were quite relaxed and focused,” he recalls. “I think the figure of eight that we dedicated to Anthony Foley while the All Blacks were doing the Haka was a big statement from the get-go. That gave us a bit more spark in the game; we played with a lot of emotion.
“We really took them on in the pack; mauled them over, kept the foot on the throat and never let them back into it. They turned it on a bit in the second-half, but we didn’t really give them any space and always came back at them. The plan we’d come up with during the week was top class, and we just stuck to it.
“Going into the last 10 minutes, there were words from the coaches and the waterboys saying, ‘Don’t get too excited. Keep pinning them back and make them play out from their own 22’, which is tough to do. Jamie Heaslip and Joey Carberry, who’d come on for Johnny Sexton, were massive leaders and Jared Payne and Andrew Trimble were big voices in the backline for us. We maintained our concentration and composure right to the end, when Conor Murray brilliantly tackled Julian Savea on the line to give us a five-metre scrum. It’s as close as any of us will probably come to the perfect 80 minutes.”
Robbie insists that media reports of the All Blacks being sore losers that day were wide of the mark.
“Nobody enjoys losing,” he says, “but they were very humble, shook our hands and said, ‘Well done, we look forward to meeting you again in two weeks’. They were totally respectful.”
That respect extends to the man who organised New Zealand’s staging of the Rugby World Cup in 2011, Foreign Minister Murray McCully, saying that Ireland would be a “terrific place” to stage the 2023 competition.
“Having the World Cup here would be great for the players, the supporters and the economy,” Robbie enthuses. “I’d love it if some of the games were played around the country, in the likes of Pearse Stadium and Semple Stadium, which I know from my GAA days. I wouldn’t mind running out at Croke Park either!
“We’ve a chance to show what we can do in August, when we stage the Women’s World Cup. I haven’t been to many games, but I follow the Ireland team on TV and they’re doing great.”
FINDING THE ACHILLES HEEL
While some English pundits have been making a case for Ben Te’o, Robbie is most sane people’s choice for inside centre when the Lions head to New Zealand at the start of June. His Soldier Field heroics didn’t go unnoticed by Lions coach Warren Gatland, who told Sky Sports this month that, “Henshaw was outstanding in Chicago.” There was also a “He’s done a great job” big-up for Leinster prop Tadgh Furlong.
“I’d absolutely love another crack at the All Blacks; it’d be a dream come true,” Robbie says somewhat breathlessly. “To be involved with the Lions is a real goal of mine, but it’s a long season. We're in the middle of the Six Nations, and we’ve got to put our eggs in that basket now. Then we’re back to the Quarter Finals of the Champions Cup with Leinster, so there’s a lot of rugby to play before anybody can start thinking about New Zealand.
“I’m just trying to keep playing well, and doing my best for the team. I’m sure Tadgh’s attitude is the same; you’ve got to keep delivering for club and country.”
One of the drawbacks of getting a Lions call-up is that Robbie will miss his beloved U2 in Croker.
“I’ve been too busy to go to gigs recently, although there were a good few seisúns back home in Athlone over Christmas. I love getting together with the family and playing a few tunes on the accordion and the fiddle. My hero of heroes is Christy Moore.”
Following Ireland's defeat against Scotland, Robbie still expects fireworks from Wales in Ireland’s penultimate Six Nations game in Cardiff.
“The Millennium with the roof closed is the most unbelievable cauldron. I couldn’t believe the noise when I first played there. One of the Wales stats is that the longer you hold on to the ball against them, the less chance you have of scoring, because defensively they apply so much pressure. They put in big shots, so you need to be both physically and mentally tough against them.”
Going 0-10 down to Australia at Twickenham in December, and then recovering to beat them 37-21 showed how England can by turns be defensively inept and an unstoppable try-scoring machine.
“Let’s hope it’s the former when we play them in the Aviva,” Robbie laughs. “At home, especially, England have that ability to turn the screw in the final few moments and beat you. Like any team, I suppose, there are weaknesses when you analyse them in detail. Part of what makes Joe Schmidt such a great coach is that he’ll go over and over things with the technical team in order to find that Achilles heel. The attitude we have is that, ‘If we can beat the All Blacks, we can beat England’.”
WORKING ON HIS SUNTAN
Robbie’s second Autumn International run-out against New Zealand was prematurely curtailed when Sam Cane, who unbelievably escaped censure, shouldered him in the jaw. It was one of the catalysts for World Rugby subsequently cracking down on high tackles.
“I knew it was nothing serious, but seeing me stretchered off was very upsetting for my family,” he reflects. “Luckily I was able to gather myself and raise my thumb to let them know I was okay. I remember taking the ball and spinning at fast pace into the hit, which felt like running into a lorry. That was my first serious head knock in five years of playing senior rugby, so I’m not doing too badly.”
Does Robbie feel more protected this season now that the tackling rules have been revised?
“Yeah, it shows that World Rugby are serious about reducing concussions. We have to tackle lower, and stop hitting people high, which will reduce injuries.”
With referees being told to automatically card high tackles, it could be a moment’s indiscipline that costs a side the Six Nations.
“I think you’re right,” Robbie nods with the head that’s lucky to still be on his shoulders. “Every time you go out to play, whether with Ireland or Leinster, you’re told to keep the penalty count as low as possible. We’re looking to be squeaky-clean in order to stop the opposition gaining points or territory. Referees need to be consistent with their decisions, though. You can’t have somebody sent off for a high tackle in one game, and only yellow carded in another.”
Sadly, an anterior cruciate ligament injury picked up against the All Blacks in Chicago, means that Jordi Murphy will miss the Six Nations – and with it the chance to make the Lions squad. How’s the shacking up together going?
“There have been a few arguments over what music gets played – he likes upbeat dance tunes whereas I’m more into traditional Irish stuff – but we get along famously,” Robbie concludes. “It’s a long old process, but he’s a couple of months into his rehab and making good progress. He’s been over in LA working on his suntan, so I’ve been left holding the dog. Other than that, though, you’re talking domestic bliss!”
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