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Henshaw happy to cover fullback but focused on perfecting centre play

The 25-year-old is beginning to step up as a leader within Ireland’s squad.

IT HAD BEEN over two years since his last start in the position when Robbie Henshaw shifted to fullback as Leinster beat Benetton in Treviso two weekends ago.

Henshaw began the game in midfield, as usual, but an injury to Rob Kearney early in the second half saw the Westmeath man moving into a position that used to feel a lot more familiar.

When Henshaw first broke through with Connacht in the 2012/13 season, he was more a fullback than he was a centre and he jumped between the positions frequently for the first two years of his senior professional career.

Robbie Henshaw Henshaw is set to start for Ireland this weekend against Argentina. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

His Ireland debut in 2013 against the US was at fullback too, but by the time he became a regular under Joe Schmidt in the 2014/15 season, Henshaw’s future as a centre had been pretty much set in stone.

Connacht still needed him at 15 occasionally, with Henshaw’s most recent start at fullback coming for the westerners against Munster in April 2016.

Some of his supporters still believe he would have been best served by remaining a fullback and fully exploiting his footballing ability there.

“It was nice, it was a bit different,” says Henshaw of his recent stint at fullback for Leinster.

“Open land with plenty of space, it’s always nice to have that. I suppose it took me back to the early days of my career. It was enjoyable.

“More freedom, more eyes, I think. More pressure under the high ball. Yeah, definitely, if you get the ball in space, you have options to kick, run or pass. You have more time on the ball, which is nice for you to make your decision.”

The 25-year-old says he doesn’t have any regrets about how things have worked out for him in midfield. 

Henshaw suggests that Schmidt would “probably laugh at me” if he told the Ireland head coach he wanted to revert to 15. 

“I think he knows that I have played plenty of rugby there,” says Henshaw. “Where he can get the best out of me is where he will play me. That’s the centre and that’s where I enjoy playing at the moment.

Joe Schmidt talks to Robbie Henshaw Schmidt sees Henshaw as a centre. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“But I am sure he knows from what I have done previously that if needs be, I could cover.

“Things have gone well for me in the centre, I have enjoyed it in the centre.

“But I think for me, to be able to put my hand up and show that I can cover more than one position is probably another string to my bow.

“Maybe one day I might get a shot back there but [I will] just keep working on what I can control. I suppose if the opportunity came, I wouldn’t mind going back but I’ll stay focused on the centre for now.”

Indeed, Henshaw feels he is still learning the art of centre play and believes there is “loads more left in the tank.”

He cites former Leinster captain Isa Nacewa’s advice to “just focus on doing your basics well and the rest will take care of itself” when he talks about his drive for further improvement as a player.

Henshaw feels that rugby at the top level evolves every year, demanding growth for anyone who plays in midfield.

“There is a lot more distribution from 12, there is a mix and match, depending on what defence you are going to play, and figuring out what defence you are going to be up against,” says Henshaw of how the game has evolved for a centre.

“There are a lot of balls in behind with the pullback pass, a lot of ideas taken from rugby league. That has evolved from rugby league a lot over the last few years.

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Robbie Henshaw Henshaw is now a senior player with Ireland. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“For centres being able to kick as well is key, so to be able to change up, not just passing but being able to put balls into the corner and put in a low grubber kick, around the corner, or over the top, just being able to constantly ask questions on the pitch is key.”

The latest trends suit Henshaw’s natural desire to be more than a direct ball-carrier.

“It has always been about how to ask more questions of the defence and not be known as just this man who is going to carry it once he gets the ball.

“Being able to play and to be able to find space – if something does come up where I am able to do more, I will always try and get better and mix up the attack.”

With Henshaw having developed into such a key man and consistent performer for Ireland, it’s easy to forget that he is still young.

He remembers “people questioning whether I’d make the step up” when he first burst into the Ireland team after Brian O’Driscoll’s retirement but is now growing increasingly comfortable with being an influence on other players around him in Ireland’s squad.

“Definitely there’s an onus on me now to step up more and to turn into a bit of a leader,” says Henshaw. “Not to look for too much focus but to help the lads coming in.

“I’d speak when I need to. I don’t like to over-talk. I’ve always been an action-first person and let my actions do the talking.

“It’s going to be a transition for me to be able to voice my opinion and help lads coming in, but also not to overdo it.”

The next step on a journey that has been fruitful so far.

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Murray Kinsella

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