Rory Keane reports from Cape Town
ROBBIE HENSHAW COULD not have asked for a better send-off.
Having dispatched Leinster at Murrayfield to claim a maiden Pro12 title, Connacht returned home to Galway to scenes of hysteria, the likes of which no Connacht squad had ever experienced in the western province’s long and often traumatic history.
Henshaw will wear the 13 shirt tomorrow. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
The celebrations are over and Henshaw’s Ireland hat is now firmly on, but the memories of that week out west will live on for the Leinster-bound centre.
“It was so surreal, I couldn’t believe it,” Henshaw recalled at Ireland’s team base in Cape Town.
“It was like Galway had won the Sam. It was kind of like that. It was an unbelievable turn-out and to see the bonfires on the way home from Knock airport on the Saturday night, certainly it was an experience I won’t forget.”
It was fitting that Pat Lam’s side should secure the title after thrilling Irish fans all season with their expansive and innovative brand of rugby.
To do it in style thanks to beautifully-worked tries from their free-running back three of Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy was a fitting end to the season. Henshaw didn’t have a bad game either.
“It was just a top-class way to go out and to finish off with them,” said the 22-year-old.
“As I said to a number of them ‘this is not goodbye; it could be see you later in the future.’ Anything could happen around the corner. But to finish in the way I did with the team I’ve been with for four years, and when I was a kid, is incredible.”
Connacht have been well-rewarded for their endeavours this season. Seven members of the province are now on board for the three-Test series.
Henshaw in a helicopter over Cape Town. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Just reward for a stellar campaign: “It’s great to see the guys in, the likes of Matty [Healy] and Tiernan O’Halloran,” said Henshaw. “I think it’s all on the back of the hard work through the season and the great form they’ve shown through the season with Connacht.
“Obviously there’s a few injuries but still I think they’re well deserving of their places in the squad. Hopefully we’ll see them get a run-out at some stage during the tour, and obviously Finlay [Bealham] and Ultan [Dillane] have been working really hard and they were in the Six Nations, so it’s great to see them and Kieran [Marmion] as well.”
With Jared Payne shifting to full-back, Henshaw has been trusted with guarding the outside centre channel, arguably the most challenging defensive zone on the rugby field.
“It’s a big difference, especially at Test level,” Henshaw explained.
“You need to stay really connected with your 12 and your wing. If you make a read and you mis-read that could ultimately lead to a line break and a try. You have to be really 100% in terms of what you’re going to do. It all comes around to the connection between inside and outside you, and obviously not being skinned on the outside.
“You need to be ready to track the 15 and use your wheels. It’s a tough position, but when you’ve clarity inside and outside you, and the boys know what you do and what you practice during the week, you can make life a lot easier.”
Following Ireland’s team announcement, Joe Schmidt observed that Henshaw had clocked up the “biggest mileage” in the Irish squad.
Henshaw is part of a new-look Ireland midfield. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
A World Cup, Six Nations, Pro12 and Challenge Cup campaign has demanded plenty form the powerful midfielder, but he insists he is not feeling the pace as Ireland head for week 50 of a hugely demanding season.
“I was just asking one of the physios I’d love to know how many minutes I’ve had. I haven’t found out. Even though I had that nasty enough hand injury against Munster and I know I missed a lot of games there, I know since then I’ve played a lot of 80s. I don’t think I’ve been subbed, apart from a blood sub against Italy.”
“I was actually keen to see what minutes I had played since I came back, but the body feels good. I feel fresh. I got a few rest days last week, or recovery days after the final which was a tough game. I’m really raring to go now and excited about the challenge ahead.”
Henshaw will form a new-look centre partnership with Luke Marshall, tasked with shutting down an equally-fresh Springbok midfield of Damian de Allende and Lionel Mapoe.
The pair have played alongside each other briefly on one occasion when Henshaw replaced Brian O’Driscoll for seven minutes during Ireland’s 32-16 loss against the Wallabies in November 2013. Marshall was starting at inside centre that night in Dublin.
“I’ve trained with him a lot, in my first and second year,” said Henshaw on his new midfield partner.
“I played with him once against Australia off the bench, so a few times. It is relatively new, but I know Luke. I’ve played against Luke and he’s a top-class player. I’m actually looking forward to feeding off him. He’s got lovely feet and he’s a strong runner. He looks for those offloads so I’m looking forward to trying and getting a bit of ball off him.”
Henshaw was among Ireland’s shark cage diving crew. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Saturday’s opening Test represents the ultimate challenge but also the chance to make history. Connacht have proved the doubters wrong this season, maybe Ireland can follow suit?
“Absolutely, yeah,” Henshaw added.
“The last tour down here was 12 years ago. We saw a few video clips of that before we came down of how close that [second Test] game was.
“I don’t think there was a big difference in terms of the scoreline. Hopefully if we could create a bit of history it would be something else for us a team. I think we’ve an unbelievable opportunity going into this weekend with fresh players and in-form players in the team.”
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