Humble Henshaw is Ireland’s new poster boy
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Humble Henshaw is Ireland’s new poster boy

 

As the old warrior stood alone in a darkened Stade de France, holding the Six Nations trophy in his hands, fully aware that his professional obituary was being penned, his successor, somewhat appropriately, stayed in the shadows.

A floodlight failure at the Parisian stadium left Robbie Henshaw with little choice. Even if he was a cocky so-and-so, he'd still have been on the outside looking in. Given the secrecy with which Joe Schmidt operates, it seemed fairly fitting that on the night Brian O'Driscoll was saying goodbye to international rugby, Henshaw was left in the dark.

That was then. Eight caps later, he has earned Schmidt's trust. And after a man-of-the-match performance in Ireland's victory over England, the 21-year-old now knows all about a spotlight shining down on him. He is Ireland's new poster boy, tagged with the 'O'Driscoll mark-two' label, something he loves, and hates.

"I think I have had to grow up quickly," Henshaw recently said. "I have a lot to thank Eric Elwood for. I was kind of doubting myself at the start when I was only out of school and signed up by Connacht. But Eric gave me that confidence. He said, 'Look, believe in yourself'.

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"In a way, I've had to mature more rapidly than other people. I can be quite timid off the park, but once you step over the line you have to be ruthless on the pitch. You don't hold back, and people say they can see that character in me when I play."

One man who spotted it quicker than most was O'Driscoll. The former Ireland captain has never been one to suffer fools gladly. He has been one to spot potential - the man who noticed Sean O'Brien's early discomfort with the D4 set at Leinster, and who quietly befriended him and persuaded him to believe he could be a star.

Two years in Henshaw's company with the Irish set-up reminded O'Driscoll of those early days with O'Brien. Like the Carlow-man, Henshaw was from a rural, GAA background. And like O'Brien, a shy streak hid a competitive nature.

So when the longest lap of honour in Irish sporting history reached its conclusion, O'Driscoll went from waving goodbye to his public to saying hello to his successor.   "He was invaluable; his experience with me," said Henshaw. "He just took me aside, one-to-one coaching and more so mentoring.

"We'd sit down and have a coffee or sit down over the laptop and have a look at video analysis of training and then he'd shoot me a couple of texts for this season in terms of how the 13 role is done and how it's been going. He's been really good and he's helped me a lot.

"I met Brian a couple of times early on in the season. But I'm just backing myself now and doing whatever I can for myself in terms of preparation and playing well and putting good performances on the pitch.

"I took a few pointers off him before games and stuff like that. But at the moment now everything has been just my own work and I've prepared myself."

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Brian O'Driscoll and Robbie Henshaw during an Irish training session in 2014. Photo: INPHO. Brian O'Driscoll and Robbie Henshaw during an Irish training session in 2014. Photo: INPHO.

His policy of self-assessment met its rewards against England in a coming-of-age moment that included a nod to his Gaelic Footballing past when he rose to collect Conor Murray's cross-kick to score Ireland's only try of the game.

"I just knew he would catch it and score the moment the kick went into the sky," said Graham O'Connor, Henshaw's former Westmeath minor coach. "He has the power and skill to do that. He's been doing it since he was a kid."

As a kid he was doing plenty. Excelling both codes doubled his work-load and yet he managed to keep both masters happy. One weekend he won the European schools championship with Ireland and by the following Wednesday, he was lining out in Pearse Park in Longford with the Westmeath minors.

Eventually he had to make a choice. And rugby won when Connacht called to offer him a contract.

Three years later, it's clear he will be swapping employers. Leinster want him and in these circumstances the guys who write the bigger cheques tend to win out. The question is whether Connacht can hold onto him until his contract ends in 2016.

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The possibility of Henshaw staying until then would increase dramatically if Connacht qualified for next year's Champions Cup. That's tomorrow's story.  For now the focus is Wales, Scotland, a Championship and a possible Grand Slam.

"I missed a couple of tackles against England and I need to work on that certainly for the Welsh game," Henshaw said. "I know what the physicality is about now. After the French and Italian games, I know what's expected of me - and certainly after the South African and Australian games (in November) too. I'm just really looking forward now to taking another step forward."

So far the step up has not been a step too far. "He is just a very level-headed guy," says his Ireland team-mate, Tommy O'Donnell.  "It's incredible to unearth that kind of talent at such a young age. And there's no airs or graces with him. He's just a down-to-earth, incredibly physical guy who loves rugby."

Conor Murray agrees. "He's brilliant, but he's modest with it," says the Ireland scrum-half. "He wants to learn."

That much was clear after the November series. Tellingly he didn't speak about what he had achieved, more about what he wanted next. "I'm playing quite well, but I think there's more in the tank. I'm learning all the time and that's what I'm pretty pleased about," he said. "I don't think you'll ever get the perfect performance, but I'm pleased with my rugby."

He isn't the only one. O'Driscoll is gone. The anointed one is here.

 

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