Robbie Henshaw relishing role at centre stage

There were no bolts from the blue when Leo Cullen named his XV to take on Northampton this evening and yet Robbie Henshaw was taken aback by one standout feature on the teamsheet circulated among the media.

Leinster make a habit of accompanying their team lists with salient facts such as the number of appearances each player has made for the club and other notable nuggets. Like when someone is earning a 50th European cap.

It was the number ‘four’ beside Henshaw’s name that caught his eye.

“Yeah. Just looking at the caps in brackets on the teamsheet, I’m the least capped player in the squad. I’m looking to get that number up, certainly. It was a frustrating start for me, watching from the sidelines. Thank God I’m back. I’m fit and available so just looking to keep going now and keep playing.”

It was a knee injury suffered whilst playing for Ireland in South Africa over the summer that stymied his hopes of hitting the ground running in Dublin after the switch from Connacht but it speaks highly of Henshaw the player and the person that he has since slotted in so seamlessly.

Still only 23, Henshaw marked his return from the concussion suffered against the All Blacks in November with another accomplished performance alongside Garry Ringrose in Franklin’s Gardens last Friday as Northampton Saints were put to the sword.

It’s a partnership that could provide the glue for the province’s midfield for a decade to come. Henshaw has put in shifts at full-back and at 13 in the past but playing at 12 for Ireland beside Jared Payne has cemented his roots at inside-centre for the foreseeable.

And that makes him the ideal foil for Ringrose.

“Firstly, when I started to play with Jared, I was playing at thirteen a lot,” he explained. “I hadn’t played a lot at twelve before but I have been there for about three or four years now. I’m finding it grand now. It’s my main position.

“Garry is a natural thirteen. He is unbelievable at what he does. I love to get the ball into his hands and let him do his thing, let him beat a few players and make a few line breaks. It’s working well and hopefully it will continue to work throughout the year.”

It must be odd to be considered a senior member of any back line at such a tender age and yet that is exactly the position in which Henshaw finds himself as Leinster lean more on more on their youth structures in this round four encounter.

He’s still not the most vocal man out there. If something needs to be said he will offer an opinion but making noise doesn’t come naturally to him. He brings other qualities, among them a defensive nous that was honed by Pat Lam in Connacht.

“He worked really hard with me on that, defending at thirteen, one of the hardest positions to defend in. He was really good for me in terms of my defence and game management and transforming my running game as well. He worked a lot one-to-one with me and a lot of players as well. He is a really nice guy.”

Henshaw’s emotional ties with Connacht must still hold strong after such a long association and he was unequivocal in stating that the province’s impressive performance away to Wasps last Sunday was evidence that the club will rally with the news that Lam is soon for moving on.

Yet all that is peripheral now.

Tonight is all about hammering home Leinster’s advantage in Pool 4 after the 37-10 mincing of the Saints in the East Midlands last week. Double that dose and the prospects of, not just qualification, but a home quarter-final will begin to capture the imagination over the festive period.

Henshaw’s focus is more limited. He talks, as most players do, about the need to tick all the boxes in his own domain. Make your tackles. Get you head right. Do your bit. That bit this evening will involve a run against his opposite number JJ Hanrahan.

The pair played underage rugby together and know one another well.

For the Kerryman, fit to play after suffering an ankle injury last week, this outing in Dublin is a chance to remind everyone on these shores of his worth after suggestions that he is primed for a return to Munster next season.

“I thought he was sharp,” said Henshaw of Hanrahan’s efforts last week. “He obviously set up their try in the first-half off the scrum and put your man away in the corner. Yeah, he was sharp. I’m sure he’ll be pumped, ready to go again.

“We just need to be sharp on our feet to defend their threats in the midfield. George Pisi at 13 as well, he has very good footwork, so we need to be wary of him on the edges. But, yeah, I though JJ did well for Northampton.”

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