‘Breaking ball, absolutely. The scraps are going to be huge’

There was a time early on in his career when it was almost mandatory to precede Robbie Henshaw’s name with the phrase ‘former Westmeath minor footballer’ given his three Leinster Championship appearances for the county.

Ultimately, that chapter in his sporting story fell some way short of satisfactory. One win against Carlow in 2010 and a pair of defeats to Longford — the second coming in 2011 — was about it at that level for a kid who featured at full-back, centre-back, and in midfield.

Sift through Henshaw’s time with the O’Neills, and the day that really stands the test of time came in September of 2011 when he held the centre for his club Athlone in a senior relegation play-off battle against Tubberclair at Tang.

Going down to the intermediate grade was incomprehensible for a proud club that sat at the top of the county’s roll of honour with 20 senior titles. An 18-year old Henshaw did as much as anyone to ensure that there would be no relocation to the backwoods.

The sides were neck-and-neck when he charged into enemy territory with less than 10 minutes to go and fed Dermot McCabe for a shot that found the roof of the net. Tubberclair’s resistance was broken in that moment but it had already been bent by the youngster from Coosan.

Henshaw was immense that day, partnering Paul Bannon in midfield and, according to the Westmeath Examiner, breaking high balls away from “the towering figure” of Mark Fitzgibbon and ensuring Athlone had a steady supply of possession.

Fast forward eight years and that sort of snapshot seems pretty relevant given Leinster face a Champions Cup decider against a Saracens side that profited richly from the aerial game against Munster in the semi-final when Mike Haley was targeted so mercilessly.

What is this sort of tactic, after all, if not a version of Gaelic football’s breaking ball?

“Breaking ball, absolutely,” said Henshaw this week in a sort of eureka moment. “I haven’t actually mentioned it (to the Leinster squad) but I might mention it during the week. Breaking ball, you’re 100% right. The scraps are going to be huge.

“So, beating them to the ball on the floor and those individual battles are going to be key. Getting the edge on your opposite number in the game is going to be huge.

If that does happen in the game, whatever team can win those loose balls on the floor will thrive off it.

Every nugget could play a part this week, regardless of how small or insignificant it may appear, given Saracens’ abilities: It was actually striking earlier this week how much focus was placed on the English side by the Irish fourth estate at Leinster’s media day.

Henshaw was taken by more than just their aerial game in the semi-final. Another standout was the sheer physicality Saracens bring and how it manifests itself in breaching the gain-line, though there was a nod to the tactical variety they can bring to proceedings too.

Henshaw was absent when Leinster saw to Sarries with some degree of comfort at the quarter-final stage in Dublin last year. His own experience of Mark McCall’s side amounts to two defeats with Connacht five years back, the second of them a 64-6 annihilation at Allianz Park.

Ten of that Saracens squad featured against Munster late last month but Leinster now are a very different proposition to Connacht back then and the Ireland centre is in no doubt that the reigning champions have it in their armoury to inflict damage of their own.

We’re pretty confident going into this weekend. We all know the challenge is going to be one of the biggest of the year. For us, we’re going to have to pull one of the best ones out of the bag in terms of performance. It’s going to start with our attack.

“So being attack-minded, both in attack and defence, is going to be key. We know they’re a team that have been through the mill and they’ve been there three or four times now so they’re well aware of the occasion it’s going to be. We’re really looking forward to what’s to come."

Sarries may be perceived as slight favourites on Saturday, but this is nothing if not a meeting of equals. The two best club teams in Europe and the dominant forces in this competition since Toulon’s powers waned so drastically on the back of their hat-trick of titles.

Both have history to draw on, and Leinster aren’t shying away from the drive for five titles. “We haven’t mentioned it yet (this week),” said Henshaw. “Everyone is focusing on their own detail, their own job, but collectively it’s what we want to do. We sat down at the start of the year to build towards and create that bit of history.

“It’s built nicely, and we’ve had a look back to go forward, not just last year, but the years before that, and what was done and the people who have come through this club and the support behind us has been unbelievable, so we’re going to need that come again next week.”

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