European Champions Cup
Sexton and Cullen united in praise of Henshaw’s herculean effort
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.
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”.
“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.
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
Leinster’s Robbie Henshaw breaks clear during the European Champions Cup semi-final against Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.