Henshaw's miracle return ensures fulcrum of Leinster's attack firing for Bilbao

The centre will play a key part against Racing 92 on Saturday, and is fit and ready for the challenge.

EVEN ROBBIE HENSHAW feared the worst as he lay stricken on the Aviva Stadium turf having streaked clear to score his second try of the game against Italy, his shoulder dislocated and the centre clutching it in deep pain.

Robbie Henshaw Henshaw pictured at UCD earlier this week. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

In that split second — as he landed across the line awkwardly, his shoulder compromised by the weight of Italian winger Tommaso Benvenuti — Henshaw’s championship came crashing down, the fragility of form and fitness laid bare.

Surgery was required and not only did the sight of Henshaw gasping in agony as he was helped from the pitch have repercussions for Ireland, but so too for Leo Cullen and Leinster, for whom he has become an equally important player in midfield.

Based on similar injuries and the time it has taken players to come back from shoulder reconstructions, the best case scenario, it seemed, was a return to fitness in time for Ireland’s summer tour of Australia.

But as soon as Henshaw went under the knife at the Santry Sports Clinic, he was straight back into Leinster’s UCD headquarters, working meticulously with the province’s medics and such was his progress in rehabilitation, it quickly became obvious that he was way ahead of schedule.

And so exactly 10 weeks to the day since that painful try against Italy in the Six Nations, Henshaw — having hit all his markers, almost defying medical logic — he was back at the Aviva Stadium in blue to play a huge role in Leinster’s ruthless semi-final evisceration of Scarlets.

Henshaw put in a remarkable 80-minute shift alongside Garry Ringrose in Leinster’s midfield, showing no ill-effects of the injury as he crashed into contact, often making crucial yards for his side.

Described as a ‘miracle recovery’ by Johnny Sexton, Henshaw not only returned ahead of schedule but in as good as shape as ever, with his availability providing Leinster’s pursuit of a fourth European star with a major shot in the arm.

“I suppose it comes off the back of a number of a number of things, a great surgeon in Dr Hannan Mullett in Santry, great medical staff here, the guys who worked with me in the physio and rehab department here,” Henshaw said of his comeback.

Robbie Henshaw The centre was immense in his comeback game against Scarlets. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“I suppose post-surgery I was kind of straight into the club after two days. If you get a long-term injury, usually you keep your head down, you get into your shell and you stay away from the place for a couple of weeks, just to get your head back right, but I was straight back in and keen to do work on it straight away.

“I was pretty much pain-free a couple of days afterwards and got out of the sling as quickly as I could and then thankfully didn’t have any setbacks and hit all my markers so we could take that aggressive approach.

“Initially my thoughts were the end of May/June, that I’d hopefully get back for the Australia Tests but thankfully it’s been a swift recovery.”

Thankfully, the damage wasn’t as serious as it could have been, allowing Henshaw to return to training in remarkably quick time.

“It was a full reconstruction but it was through keyhole so it wasn’t an open incision if you know what I mean,” he continued.

“I had eight anchors put into the labrum so it was a reconstruction as far as they go but I suppose when the shoulder dislocated my bone socket joint wasn’t harmed so the bone itself was pretty intact and seemingly if that’s damaged that sets you back a lot.

“My bicep tendon wasn’t ruptured so that was a bonus as well. I just had the labrum repaired which I suppose was lucky in the way it happened in that there was no excess damage, only the labrum.”

Henshaw’s partnership with Ringrose in midfield, both from an attacking and defensive point of view and the experience and all-round excellence they bring, is a key cog in the Leinster wheel, and it’s no secret that the pair will need to be at their outstanding best again on Saturday against Racing.

That battle with Virimi Vakatawa and Henry Chavancy is just one of many fascinating subplots to a hugely-anticipated Champions Cup final, and Henshaw’s trojan work-rate and defensive ability will be vital for Leinster.

Robbie Henshaw with Garry Ringrose His partnership with Garry Ringrose is key for Leinster. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“It’s great playing inside Garry,” the Athlone native said. “It’s unbelievable. I suppose the two of us know how each other work. I’ve played with him for ages now so it’s great to be back there. I think he’s been playing class rugby, he was unbelievable against Scarlets, both in attack and D.

“His pass off his left hand to put Fergus [McFadden] away was a beautiful pass. It’s great to see him getting better and better and it’s great to be back in the mix with the lads as well.”

Overall, Henshaw is relishing what promises to be a huge occasion in Bilbao as Leinster look to finish off a faultless campaign with a fourth European crown and a first trophy in five years.

“I think if you look across the board, at any player playing in Europe, even around the world, this competition is the most well-known, the best, competition in Europe,” he continued.

“Any player wants to be in this position. I think coming into this week, it’s been a really exciting time. I’ve loved every minute of my rugby here, it’s where you want to be.

“Thinking back to last year, the kind of hurt we had over in France against Clermont, we brought it into this year. The job isn’t done yet but we’ve definitely grown as a team since that occasion last year.

“You remember days like that [semi-final defeat to Clermont]. They’re not nice. Someone in the squad said before that you remember the worst days rather than the best for some strange reason. We’d have that in our minds. We looked at bits of clips from last year to get us in the right mindset for the next few weeks.”

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While the wounds from 12 months ago remain raw, Leinster have, of course, also tasted defeat at the final hurdle since lifting the Challenge Cup in 2013, with their Pro12 final loss to Connacht adding to their trophy drought.

Henshaw was an integral member of Pat Lam’s Connacht team that season, helping the province to a historic title, but would a Champions Cup winner’s medal this weekend mean more to the 24-year-old?

“I think so, yeah. I think so,” he replies.

“I’ve been in love with this competition since I was a kid. I always used to love watching it and to have a taste of it in Connacht a few years ago, you really feel the step up and the energy it brings.

Shane Horgan, Leo Cullen and Gordon D'Arcy lifts the cup The squad have been re-watching the famous final win over Northampton. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“So I think to be here in this position is a bit of a dream, but you can’t talk about silverware yet because we know a job has to be done and we’re putting in great work this week to prepare for what’s to come.

“We pay a lot of respect to our fans as well, I think we’re not going to do the job without them and I think they’ve been unbelievable for us throughout this year. In the Aviva the last day it was incredible and I think we’re going to need that behind us this week.”

Among Henshaw’s standout memories from down through the years is Leinster’s indelible comeback victory over Northampton in 2011, when the province — led by Johnny Sexton — overhauled a 22-6 half-time deficit to reign supreme in Europe for the second time in three years.

The current squad — which includes six players from that day; Sexton, Isa Nacewa, Sean O’Brien, Richardt Strauss, Cian Healy, Devin Toner, as well as head coach Leo Cullen — have rewatched that game in the build-up to Saturday.

“Just to get a taste of what it was like,” Henshaw says. “For the guys who were lucky enough to be there that day and to be involved, and are still involved, I suppose it’s a credit to them. We want to go and do the business now too.

“It shows us where we have to go to if we want to win trophies, and what we have to do for each other.”

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