A thought occurred to Robbie Henshaw as he lay in bed with a flu two days out from the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final against Toulouse.
The Leinster centre had only just rewatched ‘The Last Dance’ documentary on Michael Jordan and what should pop into his mind but the episode which covered the great man’s legendary ‘Flu Game’ against the Utah Jazz.
June 11, 1997. The Chicago Bulls legend was actually suffering from a bout of food poisoning brought on by a pizza delivered to his hotel room the night before game five of that season’s NBA finals. He spent the last few hours pre-game on an IV drip in the locker room.
By the night’s end Jordan had played for 44 minutes, scored 38 points, recorded seven rebounds, five assists, three steals and hit the game-winning three-pointer off a pass from Scottie Pippen. Ridiculous.
“In parts he was out on his feet and then towards the end he just found a way,” said Henshaw, “and that's what I was kind of thinking of as well.”
The patient roused himself for the captain’s run on the Friday and then put in a superb 64 minutes against the Top 14 giants the following afternoon before being called ashore. Championship player, championship minutes.
Go back to ’97 again and Jordan was still feeling the effects of his dodgy takeaway when he scored 39 points in game six at the United Center two days later. The Bulls won by four points and sealed the series. Guess who was named MVP for a fifth time?
Jordan’s devotion to winning wasn’t always the healthiest, something that 2020 documentary examined in detail, but there is a single-minded stubbornness in all elite sportspeople that allows them to go beyond the bounds of what is normally doable.
That is only heightened as the stakes rise.
“Yeah, it's probably just to win at all costs, isn't it? It's a final,” said Henshaw. “We need to just do what we can to win and if it’s ugly, it’s ugly. Whatever way the game unfolds. Looking back to the last time we were in the final and we came out winners, it was Racing and it wasn’t the prettiest game by any means, but we got it done.
“It’s what we set out to do at the start of the year, but we’ll definitely have a tough task ahead of us in terms of La Rochelle being there last year. They’ve good experience and probably being top seeds in the competition, they really have a good style of rugby. They’re hard to break down, they’ve a great defence, really strong at the breakdown.”
Ronan O’Gara’s side pose multiple threats.
Much of Henshaw’s afternoon at the Stade Velodrome on Saturday will be spent in the company of Jonathan Danty and Levani Botia, two centres he has dealt with before and men, he insists, who are not just crash test dummies but clever footballers that can just as soon thrown an offload or dance a jig around a would-be tackler.
That sounds familiar.
It’s not all that long since Henshaw himself was being used far too much as a battering ram with Joe Schmidt’s Ireland but his wider spread of talents has always been embraced by Leinster and not least now as they go about chasing a fifth star.
There are dangers to playing this expansive game. Antoine Dupont’s early try at the Aviva Stadium the last day, from a loose Jamison Gibson-Park kick in the Toulouse 22, showed how quickly an alert and alive opponent can pounce.
La Rochelle have a habit of capitalising on that sort of turnover ball too and that’s before the conditions are taken into account with temperatures of close to 30 degrees predicted for the early evening kick-off in Marseille.
Leinster? They’re not for turning. Not now.
“We need to play a similar style to how we’ve played all year and that’s play to where all the space is. We know what they’re going to do. They’re going to be aggressive off the line, they have a really good defensive system in terms of Ronan O’Gara, what he brought to Crusaders, that kind of hard up defence.
“So they give you space wide but they are quick to shut it down. Not like some teams who’ll give you the space and they’ll kind of drift to the space. La Rochelle give you the space but then shut it down from the outside in. It will be a tough task for us to attack them because they’ll be working hard off the line.”