From Grassroots to Greenshoots, Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw reminisces about the early stages of his career playing for Buccaneers and Marist College, before Connacht came knocking to kick start his professional career.
Henshaw has had a well documented career since coming onto the scene as a nineteen year old rookie fresh out of school with little time put down in Connachts Academy to now being a big game player for both Leinster and Ireland.
Speaking to Final Whistle.ie the 29 year old spoke openly about his career to date from his early days, to secondary school and eventually taking the leap to becoming a professional, rugby would always be something Robbie would be presented with as his uncle David Henshaw played rugby for Buccaneers and Connacht, while also coaching at Buccs, Henshaw says it was the family connection and his local side that really gave him that love for rugby, however an interest in GAA would see him play for the Westmeath minor team in 2010 and 2011.
“For as long as I can remember I had a great love of rugby, came from my father bringing me out playing mini rugby’s out in Buccaneers, when I was about the age of five i’d say and then I remember always travelling to the games down in Dubarry Park on a Saturday afternoon watching the Buccaneers Seniors play in the AIL first division and my uncle David was you’re right he was one of the coaches their at the time, so we used to travel the length and breath of the country watching Buccs play.
As I progressed through school into Marist College I also loved gaelic, I probably started playing gaelic before rugby, but I always felt I loved it as well, I found the fitness side of it, the skill side of it, the hand eye coordination alway complimented rugby, in rugby the physicality, the agility, the side step evasion that always complimented gaelic.”, he added.
Westmeath’s loss was certainly the gain of Connacht, Leinster, Ireland and indeed the British and Irish Lions, as Henshaw moulded himself into a natural talented player making it difficult to see his name omitted from a team sheet, while in Marist he enjoyed having that spilt season almost of playing rugby and gaelic football, but a call from, Nigel Carlin in the Connacht Academy would change his career path.
“I loved playing both throughout the year, it was always usually when club and school we’d play rugby during the winter and then it would be into gaelic season in the summer so one kinda fed into the other, then probably what swayed my decision was when I got a call from Nigel Carlin in Connacht the academy manager, saying that there was a contract available to go into the academy for three years in Connacht.
When I heard that it definitely swayed my decision because being able to train like a professional, be around professional people everyday really kinda gave me the hunger to go on want to do it so when I heard that I wanted to see how far I could go with it in terms of being in the academy and seeing if I could make the step up to being a professional.”
From an early age he was catching the eye of many individuals involved within rugby as being someone who possessed huge potential and as a result was chosen as captain for Marist College during their successful 2012 Connacht Schools Senior A Cup campaign, his final year in the school seeing them banish the hurt from the year previous and end a 35 year long wait for silverware to return to the school.
Speaking fondly about Marist Henshaw credits the work of Mick Loftus within the school as one of the key factors in how well they performed that season, from the first day back after the summer break they planned a season out in lunchtime discussions, almost like a boardroom scenario setting up their plans and goals for the year ahead.
“Looking back on that year it was one of my favourite years being involved in a team, firstly because I don’t think I’ve ever captained a team properly for a year and the fact that Mick Loftus asked me to do that I was absolutely thrilled to be able to captain the team, a lot of planning went in so Mick actually from day one when we went back to school in September we had all the Senior team in for lunchtime meetings on a Monday to see to plan out like the week and I suppose the long term goal which was to win a cup.
We got pretty close the year before but we knew that we had retained a good few players for the final year so a lot of credit to Mick Loftus in terms of what he did in terms of he arranged a tour over in Gloucester a schools tour, we played against a lot of good quality teams and just gave us different challenges, we played up in Blackrock we played Blackrock seconds team we were well prepped so probably then to see all our goals to see the team achieve all our goals was probably one of my favourite memories, always looking back in The Sportsgrounds and seeing the photos of seeing everyone celebrating lifting the cup, was defiantly up there with one of my favourites.”
Just a short time passed before Henshaw put on his next jersey, this time the green of Connacht notably for the senior side mere months after finishing secondary school, Henshaw was given his first cap for Connacht’s by Eric Elwood coming off the bench against the Cardiff Blues in the opening game of the 2012–13 Pro12 season, nerves were to be expected however for Henshaw he just took it as simply being another game of rugby.
“I was incredibly nervous, but then looking back probably being naive, I probably said to myself it’s another game go out and enjoy it, so the nerves kinda probably dampened a little bit in terms of I was just a young lad going out playing the sport he loves.”
Being thrust into the setup was certainty a leap of faith for Henshaw as he remembers he was not even active in the Academy a year before his Connacht debut, in those early days he says then head coach of the province Eric Elwood was a huge help to him, almost someone who would put the arm around someone and make sure they were okay, he always checked in on Henshaw and regularly used to say he had the talent it did not matter what age he was.
“I found Eric Elwood to be great, in that first period of my transition into professional rugby, he’d ring me in the evenings or he’d pull me aside after training or pull me into the office for a cup of tea and chat and he’d say anything don’t doubt anything, don’t be nervous, he said if you’re good enough you’re old enough I know we raised the point that I hadn’t got a full year done in the academy.
I was literally just out of school and out of school about three months and then I was into playing in September in my first year in professional, yeah it was a big stepping stone it was a large kinda leap into it but he always pulled me aside and was brilliant and always said he kept saying he said even to my parents if he’s good enough he’s old enough, it’s not about age or size, he said if the talents there he’s able to mix it with the seniors he’s going in, forever grateful for what Eric did for me.”
Having impressed at Connacht another green jersey was gathering traction, he featured in both 2013 and 2014 in the Autumn Internationals but was yet to find himself a regular in the Six Nations Setup, then in 2015 he would get his chance against England in the third game of that campaign, a debut that brought him a first try for his country, a proud moment for him, the ending brought the Six Nations Title but that try Henshaw says is one of his personal favourites.
“Anyday you play with your country is so special but to score a try for your country is a different level of joy and excitement, but probably my first try for Ireland is my favourite one stand out kinda, I remember it back in 2015 against England, a really peculiar try in terms of Conor Murray kicks it into the dead ball line and I grasp it kind of a gaelic style catch over my head, definitely that’s up there with my favourite try of my career.”
A World Cup campaign followed where he made three appearances, before settling down a place in the team on a regular basis, a year later came one of the biggest moments in Irish Rugby as the All Blacks were conquered in Chicago, one of the most famous quotes in Irish sport is “Who put the ball in the England net?”, when the question is asked who scored the winning try against New Zealand on that famous day of days, the commentary does it all justice, “Heaslip picks, little reverse pass HENSHAW, TRY FOR IRELAND HENSHAW IS OVER.”
Goosebumps, hair standing on the back of your neck kinda stuff, it was a game fondly remembered as a nation celebrated, emotions ran high that day Ireland lined out in a figure eight to honour the memory of Anthony Foley in the first game the nation played since his passing.
A memory that will live with us forever, or so says Henshaw who says to have been part of that winning team was simply unbelievable and despite crossing for that game winning try in Soldier Field it takes second place in his list of his favourites tries to date.
“I think that would be a close second favourite after the other one!, basically the whole week I was chatting to someone recently the whole week was special, the fact we were playing our first ever game in Chicago in America you know it was special playing in Soldier Field, against the All Blacks who were you know their the best in the world at the sport without a shadow of a doubt, most naturally talented and gifted teams.
That moment I’ll always remember it’s almost like it’s very surreal in terms of when it happened, kinda happens in the blink of eye and then almost you’re looking round and you’re celebrating roaring with the lads, it’s just a special moment that it’s really hard to replicate that feeling
That high and that joy but I think that was one of the biggest moments in Irish rugby’s history to be part of that team that did that was unbelievable but again down to all the hard work we put in and the coaches that coached us and put the plans in place we just had to go out and perform, thankfully we did but they’re long lasting memories that will live with us forever.”
Henshaw this season has lined out for both Ireland an Leinster, part of the grand slam winning Irish side, he now sets sights on a potential domestic double with Leinster over the next two weekends.
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