Henshaw wants Ireland to keep going forward. Dan Sheridan/INPHO

'We definitely have eyes on the World Cup so these games are all about building foundations'

Robbie Henshaw says Ireland need to build on last week’s victory over New Zealand.

WE HAVE BEEN here before. The week after an All Blacks victory, talking about upcoming World Cups, wondering how much better Irish rugby can get.

So in one sense, there was nothing new in what Robbie Henshaw had to say yesterday, his words a reminder of the sentences delivered in the days after New Zealand were conquered in 2016 and 2018.

Yet in another sense, everything was different. Henshaw’s tone was confident and measured. In 2016 and 2018, practically every Irish player you spoke to was giddy and expectant. The pain of what happened in the 2019 World Cup has had a sobering effect.

“The squad is feeling good, given we had such a strong performance last weekend,” Henshaw said. “But we have turned the page as a collective because we know how tough this one (the Argentina game) will be considering the energy, physicality and emotion that the Pumas play with. Yes, we have had really good back to back performances but the big pressure on us now is to make it three in a row.”

finlay-bealham-and-bundee-aki-celebrate-after-the-game Aki and Bealham celebrate Ireland's win. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

A long, long time ago, Irish rugby was happy with one in a row. But expectations have risen on the back of two decades of sustained success; a higher number of top-half finishes in the Six Nations this century than anyone else; two grand slams, three wins over New Zealand, regular victories against Australia and South Africa.

The one thing they haven’t done, of course, is reach a World Cup semi-final. Already they are thinking about doing just that in 2023.

“We definitely have eyes on the World Cup in 2023 so these games are all about building foundations and building slowly from here to then,” said Henshaw. “Through injury there have been changes to the starting XV this week and that is the kind of thing that will happen in competitions and in a World Cup. Come Sunday, the onus is on us as players. You need to be a hundred per cent ready from the get-go. That’s a huge focus in the squad: that you can be called on any time and you have to be able to execute.”

It’s easier to do that when there is depth in the talent pool. Once there wasn’t. As the years passed, Ireland then began to find options in certain positions but never really in all 15. And now? The bench last week included Cian Healy, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and Keith Earls – five players who have worn a Lions jersey at some point in their careers.

keith-earls-tackles-sevu-reece Earls was one of five Irish Lions on the bench last week. Ken Sutton / INPHO Ken Sutton / INPHO / INPHO

“Competition definitely has increased,” says Henshaw. “Everyone is playing great stuff for the provinces; competition is a huge driver for performance in the squad. For me personally you need that to keep you on your toes. The talent we have within the squad is huge and it’s an exciting time for us.”

Last Saturday was certainly exciting for Henshaw. By his own admission he is a nervous spectator but when Caelan Doris, his friend from Leinster, crossed the line in the second half, Henshaw the fan was off his seat, cheering and roaring like everyone else in the Aviva.

“It was tough not to be involved,” he says. “But sitting in the stands, it was incredible to watch, a memorable day for me, to just see us put it up to what is probably the No1 team in the world. It was just a special performance, one that has been on the horizon for a long time. You could see glimpses of it in the last game of the Six Nations against England but this was a step up on that. It was great to be there to watch it.”

Tomorrow the fan will make the short journey from the stands to the pitch for his first appearance of the season, a hamstring injury picked up in training with Leinster explaining his early-season absence.

Unusually for him, he’s coming late into a November Series, playing the third game of the month rather than the first or second. “It is definitely going to be a big challenge, it being my first game of this season.”

His final three games of last season were in a Lions jersey. “I was delighted to get those three Test caps, three starts; that was probably top of my list of goals going back to the beginning of the previous season. I definitely learned a lot from it and I’ll certainly take it forward into the future. It was a great experience and probably a more enjoyable tour than the 2017 one. It certainly helps you grow as a player.”

That growth will be put to the test tomorrow and deep down Henshaw knows that once you reach a certain standard, the pressure is on for you to maintain it.

“The staff, the coaches, expect us to play like we did against New Zealand every time. While you can’t play perfectly every time, the last two weeks have been great, we have been really accurate, so I think that can be the focus for us, to put in the same level of performance, to continue to be accurate, to be disciplined, to not give away too many penalties, to take our chances when they come.”

The42 Rugby Weekly / SoundCloud

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