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As is tradition, at the end of this year’s Six Nations every man and his dog drew up their Lions XV to take on the Springboks. Even accounting for national bias and personal foibles, Robbie Henshaw was pretty much the only constant presence within thousands of permutations.
This week Warren Gatland did little to dampen the impression that Henshaw, who starts at outside centre against Japan on Saturday, is nailed on for a Test place.
“I thought Robbie was the outstanding midfielder in the Six Nations,” the Lions head coach said. “He’s great in the air. I have seen him develop, improve and mature from four years ago. That’s been probably one of the biggest highlights for me, just in terms of how he has developed into an absolute world-class midfielder.”
This will not count as a revelation for anyone who has witnessed the 28 year-old tearing it up for Leinster or Ireland this year. Yet when I put it to him his performances have placed him towards the top of any pecking order, Henshaw is mortified.
“Oh no, I don’t think that at all,” Henshaw says. “I’ve played OK this season, but so have all the other lads who have been picked. The thing about the Lions is that we are all starting from scratch. There’s no credit in the bank until you start training and start performing.”
This is not false modesty. Speak to those around Henshaw, including his father, Tony, and a picture quickly emerges of how little ego he possesses. Not that Henshaw would say this himself, but that selfless attitude meant his talent was not more widely appreciated for many years as he was deployed primarily for his physicality under former Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt.
Last season, Henshaw demonstrated that he is far more than a crash-ball option. His all-court display in the 32-18 victory against England was the best individual international performance in this year’s Six Nations. The timing of his defensive reads was flawless. As a carrier, he continually put Ireland over the gain line while also gobbling up any high ball that came his way as well as distributing through hand and boot.
England’s players were left seeing double by his one-man blitzkrieg. It was not just England Henshaw left feeling dizzy. After his previous two seasons were disrupted by injury, Henshaw has found both fitness and form this year, which he directly attributes to returning to his roots in Athlone during the first lockdown.
There he devised his own training plan, doing four running sessions a week at his former junior club, Buccaneers, and borrowing weights from his old school, Marist College. “On my first day back into Leinster, we did fitness testing and I ended up personal bests on my return,” Henshaw says. “All the hard work was paying off.”
It was not just the physical benefits. “That’s the longest I have spent there since I was at school, which was great to be back surrounded by home comforts,” he says.
“It gave me time to reflect on what had happened over the last three or four years. As a professional, you very rarely get that opportunity to reflect on your achievements and that time gave me the chance to look back on some of the great games I have been involved in. It was one thing that I was really grateful for. When I came back I really had the attitude not to take anything for granted.”
Athlone, in the heart of Ireland, is not renowned as a rugby town and Henshaw became Buccaneers and Marist’s first rugby international. “It is unbelievable to look at the messages that come into my parents’ phone every week, the amount of people that care and the lift they get from seeing myself and Jack [Carty, the Connacht fly-half] represent our provincial teams,” Henshaw says. “Hopefully it shows this next generation living there that they can make it, too.”
Growing up, Gaelic football was the main sport in the town. Henshaw often wonders what path he could have taken having made the county team in GAA before signing an academy contract with Connacht. The money – a princely sum of €333 a month – was less enticing than the opportunity to train as a professional athlete. Further tough choices had to be made when he moved in with three school friends on a university campus in Galway.
“That was nearly more of a challenge than the rugby side,” Henshaw says. “When I started to get some game time in my first year at Connacht that sold it to me that it was too big an opportunity to mess up by going out having pints. So for those big nights out, I would head home early so I was out of the door by 7.30am the next morning.”
That dedication paid off as Henshaw broke into the Connacht team as a teenager and then made his Ireland debut as a 19-year-old against the United States. Moving to Leinster in 2016 was a wrench, both his father and uncle also represented Connacht, but the right choice for his professional development. Henshaw waxes lyrical about the improvements he has made under the coaching of Stuart Lancaster.
In 2017, he was called up for the Lions tour of New Zealand, but played only in midweek matches before suffering a torn pectoral muscle before the second Test. For all his humility, there is no mistaking the quiet determination to make his mark in South Africa.
“Absolutely there is unfinished business,” Henshaw says. “It was hard to get going in 2017 before my tour got cut short. Being a first-time tourist, it is like nothing else you have experienced before. Everything is a different level.
“I just need to be myself. I want to influence others around me by being brave and having a go. I want to build on my performances I have put on the pitch this year. It is a challenge to go into a new environment and there’s new players, new calls and you will need to get up to speed really quickly and learn everyone’s traits.
“I massively enjoyed the experience in 2017, but I definitely have more to offer this time around and hopefully I get the opportunity to show that if I keep my head down and working hard.”
Japan clash will be Lions' toughest opening game ever - Townsend
By Gavin Mairs
The British and Irish Lions are preparing to tighten up their Covid protocols as rates of infection continue to soar in the South African province of Gauteng, where Warren Gatland’s side will play five of their eight tour games, including two of the three Tests against the Springboks.
The region’s premier, David Makhura, was reported on Thursday claiming that one in three people may be now infected with Covid-19, with the country now officially gripped by a third wave of the pandemic.
National figures on Thursday showed that 16,078 new cases were recorded from the previous day, with more than half that total of new infections - 9,521 - in Gauteng.
The Lions are due to travel to Johannesburg, the capital of Gauteng, on Sunday night following their opening match against Japan at Murrayfield on Saturday and will be based near Sandton until July 11. The opening game of the tour is against the Emirates Lions at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on July 3.
Gatland’s 37-man squad, who arrived in Edinburgh on Thursday night from their training camp in Jersey, received their second vaccinations during the last week and are operating in a strict Covid bubble to reduce the risk of an outbreak.
Gregor Townsend, the Lions assistant coach, said the squad were aware of the situation in South Africa and after relatively relaxed restrictions in Jersey, would react to the increasing risk.
“We've talked a lot about the restrictions and protocols we have to follow while we're here (in Jersey),” said Townsend. “When we go to Scotland, they're going to be that little bit stricter and we're aware in South Africa it will be different conditions.
“I'm sure our bubble will be much tighter than it has been here. We'll be in hotels on our own. We have been double vaccinated and are following all the protocols. Players are used to that. It is what we must do to do what we want to do - play for the Lions and deliver a winning Test series.”
Despite the challenging circumstances, the Lions appear to be in high spirits, with Townsend hoping the players can revive the spirit of the triumphant 1997 tour of South Africa following several bonding sessions in Jersey.
Townsend, who starred in the series victory, recently participated in a Zoom reunion with the 1997 squad and recalled the positive impact of the famous night in a Weybridge pub before they travelled to South Africa.
“I still remember sitting with Mark Regan at the bar at 2 in the morning,” recalled Townsend. “I just couldn't stop laughing, listening to him. That's how bonds are formed. And we've seen that with this group so far.
“We went to a pub and a couple of restaurants but it’s been more back at the hotel where we’ve been having those periods together. There were a few things going on that meant there were stories the next day. It was good to see coaches and players chatting together. There were songs being sung - and we didn’t do that in 1997.
“I believe it’s been a big reason for Warren’s success as a coach. He understands that and he facilitates that. It was genius coming to Jersey and being able to use a really good training facility but being away from one of the nations where there are distractions at home, being on an island where there are less Covid restrictions, even though we’ve had to stay in a hotel pretty much, it’s been great for bringing people together.
“It will be a very unique tour given no crowds are going to be there and we're going to be in a bubble. Those social bonds are going to be even more important.”
Townsend believes that Japan, who received the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 2019 – defeating both Ireland and Scotland on the way, will give the Lions the toughest opening to a tour they have faced before.
“It's an international side, this must be the hardest opening game of any Lions tour,” Townsend said. “I think we would all have loved the second shot at Japan in 2019, from Ireland and Scotland, so these players are getting that chance now.”
“I think we want to see what we have worked on in training, transferred to a team environment. I want to see the players making decisions and taking their opportunities,” added Townsend. “We have formed close bonds in a few ways - some from having a few drinks and some from working really hard on the training field out in Jersey.
“But I believe the best way is playing together - going through some tough times in games, finding a way to win and then being in the changing room after having achieved something together. It is important, you want to win all your games on tour, and to create a buzz after the game. Those players making their debuts want to do that in a winning performance.”