Robbie Henshaw: the transformation from shy child into roaring Lion

THIS IS THE Lions, the thing every boy dreams of. They don’t dream of sticking to processes or taking the learnings from Monday morning reviews. They dream of this, wearing the red shirt, standing in the mouth of a Murrayfield tunnel when the murmur of a crowd transitions to a roar.

He’s held tight to this idea since the first time his dad brought him across the fields in Coosan to The Park, since the Christmas morning he got an All Blacks rugby ball that his dad threw onto the Buccaneers pitch during the half-time break for him to go and play.

It was why he pestered his Uncle Davy to get him inside the Buccs dressing room whenever they won, why he auditioned to be ball-boy for their big AIL games, why he didn’t head out to The Harriers when he was 16-years-old even though it was the only thing his friends talked about.

“But why not, Robbie?”

“Cos, we’ve a game.”

“But it’s not until Wednesday.”

They chased girls. He chased the dream.

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“The thing that really drives me is winning,” he says solemnly.

But it’s not just that. He’s both quiet in character yet clear in his vision. “When I was in school, I wouldn’t have been the first to put up my hand or first to answer a question. There is a little bit of shyness that is just part of my personality.”

We’ve noticed it before. There’s a story about Henshaw’s first year at Connacht, when he got thrown into the first team after a spate of injuries left Eric Elwood with a hole to fill. He turned to this 19-year-old from Athlone, just months out of school.

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Henshaw in his debut season in 2012. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“In a way, I’ve had to mature more rapidly than other people,” Henshaw said shortly after his professional debut. “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.”

Connacht was good to him but when Leinster called in 2016, he was ready to listen. So, he moved, speaking again about ‘struggling to find my voice’ in a different setting. But before he knew it, he found himself on a plane to New Zealand surrounded by Lions. “I was quite a shy person going into the last camp, very quiet,” Henshaw said earlier this year about that 2017 tour.

We’re beginning to see a pattern here. “The key within all those quotes is going into the new environment; the new set-up made me a little bit shy,” Henshaw tells The42. “Joining Connacht when I was quite young, I was in a dressing room with fully developed professional athletes, older men. Going into the Lions, I was entering the unknown and thinking, ‘how do I go about this?’ I was playing with guys who I admired for years and looked up to.

“There was the atmosphere, the whole environment, it was new to me. That was when I went into my shell. I am shy by nature but look you can be like that off the pitch. You just need to be able to find a balance that you are able to speak when something needs to be said.

“That’s something I have been working on over the last few years; my coach Stuart Lancaster has helped me, telling me I need to find my voice in certain scenarios. ‘If you feel you need to say something, say it, because your opinion is valued’. Hearing that from someone like Stuart, well it just fills you with confidence.”

Lancaster has been Henshaw’s mentor. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

So do other things. For once, heading into a big tour or tournament, he’s injury free. You may not remember the hamstring injuries that struck at the start of the 2015 and 2019 World Cups; the pectoral muscle injury which shortened his Lions experience in 2017, the knock which ruled him out of Ireland’s final games of the 2018 grand slam season after he’d starred in the opening two. But Henshaw can’t forget them.

He’d been nursing other niggles when lockdown started last March. Back home in Athlone, his old schoolmaster opened the door of the school gym to allow him borrow a few weights for him to work with at home. The injuries healed; the mind developed.

“When I came into pre-season in August, I was fitter than ever, and kind of bounced into those first couple of games,” Henshaw says. “A huge thing was that I backed myself; I stopped worrying about the outcome, the what-ifs. I decided, ‘from now on, I’m just going to have a go’. There was a definite shift in my mindset.”

And it started in lockdown when the days dragged and hours were spent in contemplation because there wasn’t much else to do with his time.

“I looked back on games I’d done well in – the Pro12 final for Connacht in 2016, the Ireland/France game in 2018; ‘let’s get back to that level of performance’, I kind of said to myself.”

Come the summer, a couple of conversations with Leinster’s departing pair, Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden, saw another lightbulb switch on. “What age are you now?” McFadden asked him last July.

Kearney has given Henshaw solid advice. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I was 27 at the time. He told me that this was when he played the best rugby of his career, when he was physically good, when his knowledge had increased. Whatever way he said it, something clicked with me. I am coming towards the latter end of my career. A rugby player retires at what, 32 or 33, on average. I’ve realised I’ve got to make the most of this.”

We first see the new him in August in the Aviva. Leinster are attacking Munster’s line, using the lineout as their launchpad. Luke McGrath finds Robbie Henshaw at first receiver, the same Robbie Henshaw who once was reluctant about putting his hand up to answer a teacher’s question. Suddenly he is putting his hand up in a 53,000-seater stadium, marked by Damian DeAllende, a World Cup winner. Henshaw teases a grubber kick into the end-goal area; Garry Ringrose scores.

Now get this. That play isn’t even a highlight in his highlights reel. There was September and Ulster, a Pro14 final, his fifth time winning the tournament on the trot. Ulster are eight points down when he senses what Billy Burns is going to do, sneaking into the passing lane, running away with Burns’ pass for the score that seals Leinster’s win.

Then you had October in Paris, the Six Nations; France against Ireland. He goes off-piste before things go downhill for Ireland, scoring a wonderful individual try. Fast forward to February, Cardiff, Ireland down to 14 men, Henshaw demanding the ball off Johnny Sexton to change the point of attack, stepping Justin Tipuric before he popped an offload to Josh van der Flier. Seconds later, Tadhg Beirne scores.

Henshaw scores against France. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“He was the best centre in the Six Nations,” said Warren Gatland earlier this week.

You could never say he was ever that under Joe Schmidt because Ireland’s gameplan was so strictly choreographed under their former coach that individual brilliance had to be sacrificed for the greater good. Take the 2017 Six Nations as an example: Henshaw made 62 carries in five games, gaining 99 metres.

A fortnight after that tournament ended, he carried for 102 metres in a single afternoon for Leinster against Wasps in the Champions Cup. This season he gave meaning to Andy Farrell’s ‘heads up rugby’ theory with his actions against France and Wales.

It is why he is here today, in Murrayfield, playing one last game in the northern hemisphere before he jumps on a plane to South Africa. There’s a sense of adventure about all this and it takes him back to his five-year-old self, to another journey, this one by train.

Buccaneers were Uncle Davy’s team. And for a few years either side of the Millennium they were everyone’s second team. “I was brought down there initially as a three-year-old,” Henshaw recalls. By the time he was a veteran with five candles on his birthday cake, he was allowed head to away games, he and his sisters, Cork Con the destination for the 1999 All-Ireland League semi-final.

There was a picture WhatsApped to the family group chat a few weeks back, his three-year-old sister holding a soother in her hand as she had her face painted yellow and black, the Buccs colours.  “That was taken on the day we went to Cork,” he remembers.

They lost but they won. A community had formed around that side; a kid was hooked on the sport. “When my uncle was involved in the Buccs side, I’d always get pulled into the changing room after,” Henshaw says. “I was in awe of every one of them. Rugby was always steeped in the family. Dad passed on the birthright. The memories of the packed out crowds, three or four thousand per game, for a small kid, that was massive.”

Ireland was a different story. Uncle Davy never played for them but one of his father’s best friends did. Leo Galvin is his sister’s godfather who featured in an Ireland/Argentina game in the mid ’70s.

It was Leo who sourced the tickets for his first ever trip to Lansdowne Road in 2006 for the Pacific Islands’ visit. “He got us to the All Blacks too that year, plus the Croke Park heartbreak game against France in ’07. When Keith Wood played for Ireland, dad and Leo were always saying, your uncle played with him.”

“Which one, da?”

“The baldy one.”

“Those long, saggy, green jerseys with Irish Permanent on them; I loved them. Right from a young age, I really loved the game.”

Keith Wood and his baggy green jersey. Source: INPHO

Straightaway everyone could see he was good at it. Noel Mannion remembers him kicking the ball around at Buccs when he was still 11 or 12. “Oh, he was special,” says Ireland’s try-scoring hero from the 1989 win over Wales.

He says he never felt that way, never noticed that he glided when others toiled; that the reason he was better than the rest was not just because of his attitude but also because of his ability. His shyness kind of disappeared when he walked onto a pitch but still, the kind words of a schoolmaster, Mick Loftus, left a deep impression.

“You have the skills; you just need to enjoy yourself,” Loftus told him.

These days he is which is why after today’s game against Japan it will be a plane rather than a train he’ll be boarding, surrounded this time by some of the best players in the world, not the people from his community. Yet, in his head, those friends and family members will still be there.

“It’s a big thing for me to do it for them, the club, the town, the school, everyone who has helped me. I think back to mam buying me a pair of football boots when she didn’t want to, when they were a bit expensive; my partner sitting in with me on a Saturday night when our friends were on a night out.”

There’s more to it than just that, though. There’s something even deeper, a steely, determined trait that is at conflict with his outward timidity. “My nature is to just devote myself to something. I was always like that, from when I first played.

“For me, it is about proving yourself not just once but every single day. Winning respect for what you did, how you performed, how you trained, how you played. High performance is just living good daily habits and sticking to the things that work for you. It took me years to figure that out.

“That’s why I’m here, to succeed, to try and win trophies. That is top of my list. What I’ve done before – I don’t focus on that. It’s what’s next; it’s what can be done; that’s what drives me.

“You know it’s a big thing to be a Lion. Only 36 players get to do it on any tour. Last time, when we landed at the airport and were greeted with the traditional Maoiri welcome, straightaway I knew I was part of something special. Something like this, you just have to go for it.”

That’s been his attitude all season, the best of his career – but one that is only now about to begin. 

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