Robbie Henshaw on Lions Tour bubble, Leinster’s Champions Cup drought and Ireland’s evolution

In the middle of a mad week in a mad era where planning for anything seems fanciful, we ask Robbie Henshaw how in 20 years’ time he might explain to his young fella the madness of 2020/21 — and probably beyond. This wasn’t thrown as a curveball but Henshaw is struggling to track its flight.

God almighty, I don’t even know! I can’t even picture myself having a young lad. Looking back hopefully in the future, it’ll be crazy to try to sum it up in a few words, probably: enjoy it, make the most of your life as well, enjoy every minute because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The Lions was his close-up on the challenges of being in a big time bubble, an overseas job where there was no escape hatch. Typically Lions tours kick off with a crash course in team bonding in the UK or Ireland before the squad fly out. This time the bonding could be stretched over a period of weeks, unbroken by the things Lions normally do when in South Africa: a safari, visits to hospitals and schools, pints in public places.

So from the time they touched down in Johannesburg Henshaw could compare and contrast with his experience in New Zealand four years earlier. The former was intimidating because Lions tours to that country have taken on a nakedly hostile element. South Africa’s fans are hardly all Lions lovers but this was just weird.

“To not have that buzz around, that energy (from travelling fans), was tough at the start,” he says. “But it probably put more of an emphasis on the players to, I suppose, create their own energy and to have a good squad, and a good bonding within the squad. Definitely it was really enjoyable in that sense. Effectively we were stuck in a bubble in two hotels for the guts of seven/eight weeks. It was definitely challenging, but it was an enjoyable challenge.”

So did you run out of traditional tunes on your accordion?

“Yeah, I only brought it out once or twice — it was more Josh Navidi who was on the DJ decks. He was stealing the show. We were in a resort, so plenty of golf and plenty of quiz nights and just enjoying each other’s company. Plenty of cards. It was good. As a whole, looking back, comparing it to the 2017 tour, it was definitely a closer group because of Covid.”

By that point he had got his head around the antiseptic nature of going to work in an alien environment, playing virtually in private a game that is meant for full houses.

“To to be honest, I was kind of taking it like I was just lucky to be playing rugby,” he says. “Lucky to be doing our jobs. So, I nearly spun it as a positive. It was a negative, that we weren’t playing in front of crowds, that was the main thing, but the fact that we were able to come into work every day. My own partner: she was working from home for over a year and the stresses that brings, not being able to get out and socialise and do the regular things. So, I suppose that helped me to spin it as a positive to be able to come in and see the lads, actually see people and get out onto the pitch and play and compete. But definitely people around the world who haven’t got that chance to, I suppose, get back to full day-to-day working and socialising, they definitely suffered.”

Having moved from Connacht six seasons ago Henshaw is up to speed on the benefits of being a part of Ireland’s biggest and best-resourced province. Consequently, the impact on the national side is what you’d expect. It’s taken two full seasons for Andy Farrell to get the Ireland side into the required shape and it’s no coincidence that it’s driven by Leinster.

“The style of game we play here (Leinster) has definitely benefited us (with Ireland),” he says. “We definitely look to move the ball around the place. We’ve seen some of that within the (Ireland) performances in November. We’ve been moving the ball to space in the Irish side, so there was definitely a bit of a correlation there between the two styles but, again, international level is a different ball game to provincial level so it’s a lot more tactical and you have to be a lot more detailed.

“Everything is a couple of levels above, so I think everyone knows that when they go in. Definitely, when you get into the phases, there’s been a similar mindset. I suppose our mindset has always been to play to space, so we’ve just been doing that effectively (with Ireland) over the last few weeks.”

As for the day job, the last week has seen Leinster stopped on the gain line by Ulster who narrowed the game and won the battle. This was awful news for Henshaw’s old pals in Connacht who needed Ulster to lose. They got the worst of both worlds: unexpected points for Ulster, and putting Leinster on red alert at the prospect of losing two games in a row. On Friday night in the RDS the unthinkable didn’t materialise. Leinster and Henshaw were very good.

They are at home again on Saturday for the visit of Bath in the Heineken Champions Cup. On paper it’s a gimme, against a side struggling badly in the Premiership. If your target is to win the competition however you can’t approach day one as a handy day out. Does he accept that anything short of a fifth premier European title would be seen as failure?

“To get that fifth star is huge for us,” Henshaw says. “The last few seasons we’ve learned a lot about coming up against the big, physical teams, the Saracens and the La Rochelles, so that’s what we’re going to have to come up against again. I suppose we just have to learn and to be able to deal with them. We won’t have them yet. The first game is going to be a good start for us, being at home in the Aviva as well is brilliant.

“To get back to your question, we’re definitely looking at ourselves and putting ourselves under that pressure that we really want to get back to having that success from before. In Bilbao (2018), beating Racing was an incredible feeling and I think we want to get back there. We’re doing our best to do it this year.

It’s hard to believe that drizzly day in the Basque country, with 53,000 packing San Mamés, was two years before Covid came.

“I know, it’s crazy when you look back and see the highlights of the game, how different things are now.”

Leinster will need Henshaw’s help to reel in those years.

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