The Irish Times

Henshaw is a tug-of-love Connacht need to win for their future

- Keith Duggan

For the youngsters from Galway city and the satellite rugby towns, Henshaw holds an illuminati­on all of his own. He is the one they want to be

Long before Brian O’Driscoll’s goodbye-season reached a wistful zenith, the debate had begun about Ireland’s possible centre-pairings for the World Cup. And it was the name least mentioned in the media who turned out to be the very player that started at number 12 for Ireland in the tournament: Robbie Henshaw.

His omission from those conversati­ons two years ago would have puzzled the Connacht regulars thrilled by the player who was undergoing a metamorpho­sis before their very eyes from local-kid-made-good into one of the outstandin­g prospects in the game. He was cool-headed, ran smart lines, was a formidable unit and had a zest for tackling – always an advantage when you are playing for Connacht. The regulars must have been torn between the natural wish to see their boy elevated to full senior internatio­nal status, which has inevitably happened and forevermor­e keeping Henshaw as he was for that season: the open secret of Irish rugby.

The general expectatio­n is that Henshaw’s imminent meeting with the IRFU’s performanc­e director David Nucifora next week will result in his agreeing terms to join Leinster next season. If that happens, nobody among the Connacht hardcore would wish him anything but the best – even if they would privately prefer he joined any other club in Europe. The Connacht crowd dislikes losing to Ulster, hates losing to Munster and absolutely despises losing to Leinster and that isn’t going to change because a favourite son turns up in blue. But a profession­al rugby life is brief and Henshaw is obliged to do what he feels is best for both his sporting life and his financial future.

However, the issue of where he plays next year hangs from a fundamenta­l question of what Irish rugby wants Connacht to be – and become. The sight of Henshaw leaving will be nothing new to the Sportsgrou­nd fans. It was accepted that the star players of any season would, sooner or later, leave for elsewhere.

Last outpost

Some, like Jamie Hagan, were Leinster academy players who thrived in the Sportsgrou­nd only to find themselves frustrated by lack of playing time when they returned to their mother club. Bernard Jackman all but died for Connacht teams winter after winter and happily won a Heineken Cup medal when he came home to Leinster in the later phase of his career. Jerry Flannery, John O’Sullivan, Eoin Reddan, Mike McCarthy, Ian Keatley are among those who have moved east or south with varying degrees of success. But their departures came in the middle of a period when Connacht’s status within Irish rugby was, at best, uncertain: the club existed somewhere between developmen­t station and last outpost but it was viewed as a place of limitation­s; the ground which all other teams dreaded visiting.

The case of Robbie Henshaw is different. Connacht’s dramatic and emotional win in Thomond Park in late November was the most visible manifestat­ion of a seismic deep-down shift of belief and intent within the club. For the first time in the profession­al era, they have acquired the necessary audacity to feel they can out-play as well as out-fight the establishe­d provinces. Previous Connacht teams coached by Michael Bradley and Eric Elwood produced exceptiona­l, laudatory moments of skill and were capable of out-of-the-blue magnificen­t wins. But they were forever being asked to run uphill on a sloping field.

The general acceptance is that Pat Lam, who remained steadfast and calm throughout the turbulent series of results in his first season, is responsibl­e for infusing this new sense of conviction and daring. The common blueprint of a Connacht performanc­e – heroic resistance for an hour, visitors sending in big-name replacemen­ts to rescue the game, a killer late try, an iffy referee’s decision – has not applied this season. The academy is producing players with terrific potential. Attendance­s are up. The Sportsgrou­nd isn’t perfect but it is far from the barren, windy height of old.

For the first time, rugby people are looking at Connacht with wonder and perhaps even envy. At some stage over the past five or six years the IRFU clearly decided that the best policy was to promote Connacht rather than privately wish it would sink into the Atlantic.

The union’s investment in the club has helped to make possible the excitement levels and surging optimism generated by the past few months.

The assumption is that the IRFU conversati­ons with Henshaw will emphasise the obvious advantages of a move to the capital. Leinster remain the jewel in the crown and the trials of the past few seasons have probably convinced all parties of the wisdom of deepening Leinster’s options by signing a young internatio­nal star whose future is opening out before him. But will joining Leinster at an uncertain period in their developmen­t instead of remaining with a Connacht team that has found its feet be of real benefit to Henshaw in the short term? Knock-on effect Imagine the knock-on effect for Connacht if the theme of the conversati­on was to focus on Henshaw remaining with Connacht for other two or three seasons. What if his next contract with the IRFU exceeded whatever terms he might be offered at Leinster in order to keep him with his home club? At just 22, Henshaw is already a folk hero in Connacht sport.

He made it to the high table of Irish rugby using none of the usual stepping-stones: Athlone and Marist College – their first player to win an Irish schools cap; captain when they won their first Connacht Senior Schools Cup since 1977 and then Connacht academy. His uncle played for Connacht. Henshaw is walking proof of everything that is good and promising about rugby in the west.

If he plays for Leinster, Henshaw will, of course, be a big attraction. But he will still be just a star among stars. In Connacht, particular­ly for the youngsters from Galway city and the satellite rugby towns, he holds an illuminati­on all of his own. He is the one they want to be. You cannot ever hope to gauge the value of his ongoing presence in Connacht because you cannot yet identify the eight-year-old from Roscommon, from Leitrim, from Galway, who may become the future Henshaw. And that is how the IRFU can grow and spread the game beyond the citadels – if that is their aim.

If he leaves, Henshaw will always be guaranteed a warm reception at the Sportsgrou­nd and as a club Connacht will do what they have always done when one of their players heads for brighter lights: they will get on with it. But if he ends up staying for another few seasons, it will be almost like an official imprimatur from Lansdowne Road for Connacht to tear up the script and to stand, at last, as one of the four provinces. It would take some bold thinking and faith from all parties. But if there was ever a time for Connacht to win the tug-of-love over one its players, then that time has come.

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