Robbie Henshaw was going up against childhood hero Sonny Bill Williams when he made his British and Irish Lions debut against the Blues at Eden Park this morning and he was expecting a surreal experience.
All Black Williams, seven years older that the Irishman at the age of 31, were set to be in direct contention at inside centre during the Lions’ first meeting with a Super Rugby franchise and Henshaw was relishing the prospect of clashing with a player he considers the most talented player he has seen.
“I was a big fan of his when I was a kid. Whether it was performing in (rugby) league or for the All Blacks, to be coming up against him is pretty surreal,” Henshaw said. “I’m looking forward to playing against him and having a go.”
The Leinster star, who was named alongside Ireland team-mate Jared Payne in the Lions midfield, recognised that the correct defensive technique under the guidance of his defence coach Andy Farrell was hugely important to containing the Blues powerhouse.
“Definitely. If he’s a one-out runner and there’s no-one with him, obviously I’ll look to come in and make a double hit on him and try and stop his offload threat but you have to obviously look at the guys who are flooding through as well.
“Often as a part of defending you have to go with a double man tackle on him, one high and one low, and try and stop the offloads around it. “It’s definitely going to be a tough challenge but I think we have the right man in place to execute a good defensive system.”
There is a common thread between Williams and Henshaw and that is skills coach Dave Ellis, with whom the Irishman worked during his final season at Connacht in 2015-16 and who is now in the same post at the Blues.
“Dave definitely helped me a lot with my short kicking game and with my catch pass game,” said Henshaw, who recognises the Kiwi coaching influence on his game from Ellis and Pat Lam.
“They all look at running the ball. I think the Auckland Blues run the ball a lot, from studying them in the last few weeks. Their threats in the back-row and in the back-line are quality. The Ioane brothers (flanker Akira and wing Rieko) are good players. I think we have to be ready for them to run it from their own line. They are going to come with a mentality of just playing and trying to score tries. They have nothing to lose. They are going to go for it.
“From previous experience and being coached under Pat Lam he loves the running style of rugby and he brought that to Connacht as we saw during the year. Dave Ellis is a skills coach and he is more about attacking the line, eyeing up threats and seeing what is on, particularly from midfield rucks and coming back down the blindside. Basic handling skills — that is what they execute well under pressure.”
There will be a different pressure facing the Lions at Eden Park as the tourists seek to get their 2017 tour up and running following a disappointing performance in beating the Provincial Barbarians 13-7 last Saturday, a game Henshaw watched from the stands.
“We just need to click as a team, not looking at it as an individual. It’s doing the unselfish things — hitting rucks, making your tackles, doing the basics to the best you can, not trying to stand out.
“Look after your own game, do what you usually do and work for each other — that’s where we’re going. We’re looking for a performance first.
“We want to start fast, we want to start well and we want to perform as a team by executing the basics well and putting the Blues under pressure, both in attack and in defence. We want to go out there with a simple plan because we’re obviously still getting to know one another, but we want to click as a team and get to know one another more and more.”
Henshaw said head coach Warren Gatland wanted his new-look backline to click against the Blues.
“He wants us playing what is in front of us and then we have that licence to do that so that is really it. It’s heads-up rugby and we play with what we see. If it’s on to throw a 60/40 off-load, he’s encouraging us to do that. We’re all smart players and we know when not to throw the miracle offload or not.”
Making one’s Lions debut is an event Henshaw intends to treasure and he is grateful to be receiving two jerseys.
“I’ll keep one and swap one. It’s a massive honour. I just want to wear it with pride, to go out there and do what I usually do. It’s the top, top level of the sport for us and to be in this position is unbelievable. I just want to go out there and do myself proud, do my family proud,” he added.
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