BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Henshaw at home on the big stage

Looks can be deceiving, which is just as well given the picture Robbie Henshaw’s face painted as the Connacht youngster stood listening to the anthems before the biggest examination in his burgeoning career.

Three caps had already been bagged, but this was the big one and one look at the 21-year old in that pre-match line-up made you fear he was all too aware of the magnitude of the task ahead and the legend just departed.

Tagged for some time now as the heir to Brian O’Driscoll’s Irish shirt, he was spared the overt comparisons by Joe Schmidt’s decision to hand him the number 12 jersey instead, but this was still his Las Vegas after the few outings in Atlantic City.

He knew it and so did everyone else, but nervous?

Not at all.

“Em, not really, no,” he said an hour or so after the day was done.

“I was just mentally prepping myself, getting ready for what was to come. I knew they were a massive physical threat, so I was just getting ready for that.”

In truth, he was more nervous last season when making his debut. He didn’t say it, but the inference was that he was ready. That this was his time. Schmidt clearly felt so and so did the man from whom he was supposed to receive the baton.

O’Driscoll had anointed Henshaw as his successor only weeks earlier and he sent the younger man a text of encouragement telling him not to be nervous, to go out and simply do what it is he does.

Henshaw was chuffed with the shout-out in the media, but he needed to earn it. “Yeah, he admitted. “I’ve had to grow up and start doing things myself, stepping up and taking it into my own hands.

“Brian kind of held my hand last year and brought me up with him. He gave me some really good tips and I’ve just learned from all the stuff he has given me in camp. He really helped me out.”

Henshaw was aided further by Schmidt’s abilities as a coach and, in particular, his gift at being able to send out even the most inexperienced players with the confidence that if they stick to their roles and instructions they should live to tell the tale.

Such parameters would have been crucial to Henshaw as he came to grips with a physicality he described as “insane”. So furious was it that this supremely fit athlete found himself reaching his second wind after just 20 minutes.

Alongside him, of course, was Jared Payne who had witnessed more big days in his time with the Crusaders, the Blues and Ulster but who was stepping on to the Test treadmill with nine more years on the clock.

“I was relatively happy with myself and Jared. Jared is a really experienced player. He’s played against Jean de Villiers before and a couple of the South African guys.

“He was really good during the week to work outside me and Johnny (Sexton) inside me was brilliant. They’re two really experienced players so it made my job a lot easier.”

Sexton, not unlike Schmidt, is known as something of a hard taskmaster and one whose tongue can carry as much bite as his boot, but it was Henshaw delivering the orders as he demanded the ball two minutes into the second-half.

Sexton complied, delivering a simple pass to Henshaw whose reason for the call were the acres of space he spotted in behind the right wing Cornal Hendricks and the resultant kick laid the platform for Rhys Ruddock’s try.

“Well, you have to be able to do that if you’re playing 12. You need the ball early if you see a mismatch or an overlap. You have to step up. If not you’ll get some criticism in the review on Monday so I just made my voice clear and got clarity to Johnny early.”

Other issues are less clear. He may yet spend more time at 12 or find himself pressed into service at 13 or even 15 but Henshaw has clearly found a home for himself in this Irish team all the same.


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