Euro­pean Cham­pi­ons Cup

Sex­ton and Cullen united in praise of Hen­shaw’s her­culean ef­fort

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Front Page - Gavin Cum­miskey at the Aviva Sta­dium

Le­in­ster match re­port; ‘What an in­cred­i­ble ath­lete to come back look­ing like he’s never been away’, Re­ac­tion, Player rat­ings,

No mirac­u­lous re­cov­ery, just 21st cen­tury ex­per­tise. The sur­geon, Mr Han­nan Mul­lett, de­serves a men­tion along with the fact that dur­ing Rob­bie Hen­shaw’s 10-week re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, fol­low­ing shoul­der re­con­struc­tion, he some­how im­proved his pass­ing.

Johnny Sex­ton was laud­ing the bru­tal­ity of Le­in­ster’s pack when the con­ver­sa­tion veered away from turbo-charged feats of an om­nipresent Scott Fardy (Ex­hibit A: sling-shoot­ing Cian Healy’s 115 kilo­grams over for the sec­ond try).

“And Rob­bie,” Sex­ton added. “He was in­sane.”

Af­ter pound­ing his up­per body into the Aviva turf to fin­ish a run­away try against Italy on Fe­bru­ary 10th, the 24-year-old’s post-Lions sea­son was go­ing the same way as Seán O’Brien. Joe Schmidt even pre­dicted sev­eral months on ice.

“Look, he’s got ev­ery­thing,” Sex­ton ex­plains. “What an in­cred­i­ble ath­lete, to spend the time out that he has and come back look­ing like he’s never been away. By far I think the most im­pres­sive per­for­mance to­day was by him.”

Sex­ton meant this was Hen­shaw’s great­est ever dis­play or that he just out­played Fardy and James Ryan. Ei­ther way, some­thing truly spe­cial oc­curred.

Phys­i­cal state

Con­cerns about his phys­i­cal state were al­layed by two thun­der­ing runs in quick suc­ces­sion, mul­ti­ple winc­ing col­li­sions and a bril­liant pass to put Isa Nacewa in space as Le­in­ster tram­pled their way to a 22-9 half-time lead. “It is a se­ri­ous ef­fort to get back in that time frame,” said Leo Cullen. “The sur­geon al­lowed him to push on nice and ag­gres­sively but what he de­liv­ered out there was in­cred­i­ble.

“When Con­nacht won the Pro 12 in Mur­ray­field I said af­ter­wards I was glad that player was go­ing to be in our team next year. He has been bril­liant ad­di­tion for us.”

The in­evitable rise of Hen­shaw was ob­vi­ous once the 19-year-old Athlone full­back broke into the pro­fes­sional ranks but link­ing Sex­ton to Garry Rin­grose has proved of enor­mous value to Ir­ish rugby.

“He used the time well,” Cullen con­tin­ued. “It is not just get­ting back from his shoul­der, you can see he was work­ing on his skills. He is faster and fit­ter com­ing back.”

Of course, Hen­shaw is a mere solo in­side the melody. From the top down Le­in­ster have be­come one of the most har­mo­nious sport­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions in Europe.

Sex­ton is the skip­per but Isa Nacewa leads them onto the field. Guy Easterby runs op­er­a­tions from con­tracts to re­cruit­ment (be­sides the Tadhg Beirne glitch this area has proved ex­tremely suc­cess­ful).

Cullen sought out and fa­cil­i­tates the coach­ing ex­per­tise of Stu­art Lan­caster (Lazarus to fel­low English peo­ple) while Le­in­ster play­ers con­tin­u­ally de­scribe Fardy and Nacewa as “player coaches”.

Qual­ity for­eign­ers

“That’s why it is so im­por­tant that the club signs these qual­ity for­eign­ers be­cause I don’t think James Ryan would be the player he has been this sea­son with­out Scott Fardy help­ing him along,” said Sex­ton.

“Those back­row guys, he coaches them, he’s had a huge im­pact on the group.”

The Wal­laby blind­side was the game’s out­stand­ing player un­til Ryan grew into and out of this Cham­pi­ons Cup semi-fi­nal with a flag plant­ing ar­rival on the Euro­pean sum­mit promised next.

But Fardy set the tone; clothes-lin­ing the snip­ping St­eff Evans and plant­ing seeds of doubt in the Scar­lets psy­che when block­ing down a Gareth Davies box kick.

Yet Ryan mo­tored past with jaw-drop­ping num­bers, be­com­ing the lead­ing ball car­rier (16) and equalling Hen­shaw’s 12 tack­les. “If we had [Ryan] last year some of those games could have been very dif­fer­ent. He’s had that big an im­pact.”

The cap­tain did sound a note of cau­tion: “He’s got to do some work to get his body right. He’s one of those play­ers, like Seanie, he is go­ing to pick up knocks the way he plays the game.”

Ryan, al­most in dis­gust with Beirne splin­ter­ing the first Le­in­ster maul, went over the top of the Mun­ster-bound Kil­dare man for a fe­ro­cious open­ing score.

That try, taken di­rectly off the white board in UCD, threat­ened a re­peat of the Tadhg Fur­long pass at Twick­en­ham but each hu­man tor­pedo proved a ruse as quick hands by Sex­ton, Nacewa and Rob Kear­ney gifted Fer­gus McFad­den a sprint to the cor­ner. The scram­ble de­fence smashed the winger but he kept ball in play as Cian Healy and Jordi Mur­phy shunted Ryan over. Ev­ery sin­gle player con­trib­uted.

In­for­mal lead­ers are ev­ery­where. Af­ter one power surge yielded a penalty, McFad­den palmed the head of a grounded Scar­let, stomp­ing the grass like a dis­turbed griz­zly.

Al­pha Prop

Rin­grose slipped into out­half when Sex­ton was hit off the ball to fire a gor­geous left to right pass for McFad­den’s even­tual try. Fur­long is the al­pha prop in world rugby. Dan Leavy, Ryan, Jordi Mur­phy and the re­cov­er­ing Luke McGrath were suc­cess­ful un­der­age cap­tains.

Kear­ney also knows a thing or too about win­ning – four Six Na­tions medals, two Grand Slams and he is now pur­su­ing the fourth star for his blue jersey.

“The more you win the more you want to win and the more tro­phies you get the greed­ier you get for more,” said Ire­land’s most dec­o­rated player.

Spare a thought for the ex­iled Beirne. Dev Toner and oth­ers clev­erly and il­le­gally dragged him past rucks. He was dis­gusted with Ro­main Poite ig­nor­ing solid claims for a turnover penalty be­fore the killer McFad­den try. Fur­long grabbed his scrum cap, still need­ing mus­cle from Cronin and Toner to re­move Beirne’s hulk­ing frame. That was the mo­ment the con­test ended.

“I thought they were ex­cep­tional around the ruck,” Beirne con­ceded.

“They didn’t give my­self, James [Davies] or John [Bar­clay] a sniff of the ball.”

Le­in­ster only needed 40 min­utes to de­stroy these Scar­lets but, re­ally, it has taken three years for the or­ches­tra to find such a dis­tinct sound.

‘‘ You can see he was work­ing on his skills. He is faster and fit­ter com­ing back

PHO­TO­GRAPH: GETTY IMAGES

Le­in­ster’s Rob­bie Hen­shaw breaks clear dur­ing the Euro­pean Cham­pi­ons Cup semi-fi­nal against Scar­lets at the Aviva Sta­dium on Satur­day.

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