'It definitely helps us that we're not just relying on our 9s and 10s to run it'

Robbie Henshaw is happy to step up as a distributor for Leinster and Ireland.

lucozade-sport-event Rob Herring, Craig Casey and Robbie Henshaw pictured with Lucozade Sport’s new fully recyclable bottle. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

PLAYING AT INSIDE CENTRE for Leinster, Ireland and the Lions has meant that Robbie Henshaw has had to offer a direct, aggressive running option at times. 

He is often a ball-carrying focal point, looking to win the gainline and get his team moving forward.

Even in that role, Henshaw brings subtlety with his sharp footwork, which allows him to rapidly alter his running line at a late stage and punch into arms rather than firm shoulders.


And away from his ball-carrying duties, Henshaw brings subtlety with his ball-handling skills, which allow Leinster and Ireland to offer a variety of threats in their attack.

28-year-old Henshaw, who first broke into pro rugby at fullback and has also played lots of rugby at outside centre, has always enjoyed being a distributor, bringing team-mates into the game with his passing and offloading.

That means a moment like the one below against Bath last weekend was pleasing, with Henshaw delivering a superb pass for Josh van der Flier to pierce the defence and score.

Henshaw Pass

“It’s nice to be able to stand in at first receiver and obviously when you have someone hitting the ball at pace, it always makes a difference,” says Henshaw. “Josh’s angle and line were top-class to break through.”

It’s typical of Henshaw to push the credit elsewhere but his contribution is vital here, as he steps in at first receiver with a pod of three forwards outside him, as well as Leinster wing Jimmy O’Brien loaded in behind for a possible pullback pass.


So what was the decision-making process for Henshaw here?

“You have a pod of three forwards outside you and depending if the defence is coming up hard outside, then you might hit the first one in the pod because the pass might be a bit risky to the second guy in the pod.

“Actually, Andrew [Porter] does a good job here animating like he’s going to receive the ball and then I just saw that I had a bit of time to throw it across to the middle guy, who was Josh.

“It happens quickly but you rep that in training during the week. I saw that there was a small bit of space in their defence where they weren’t coming up as aggressively as I thought they might.”

We can see that Sexton is on the left-hand side of the ruck in this example and indeed, it’s clear that he wanted the ball in this instance to attack into the shortside.

Whatever about this specific example, both Leinster and Ireland are keen for all of their backs to be ball-players and ensure that the playmaking onus is shared around. Note how Henshaw is at first receiver below against Argentina last autumn, hitting Tadhg Furlong in a two-man pod, with out-half Joey Carbery lingering out the back.


“That’s a challenge for everyone in the backs, to be able to step in at first receiver and to run it,” says Henshaw.

“We can’t just focus on our out-halves to do it, everyone has to take it on themselves.

“Guys like James Lowe, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, and Hugo Keenan were all standing in at first receiver [last November] and taking ownership to run it. It definitely helps us as a team that we’re not just relying on our 9s and 10s to run it.”

Another of Henshaw’s key distribution roles comes when Leinster use him at first receiver on the set-piece play below, a move that they – and many other teams – now use very regularly.

Scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park hits Henshaw off the maul, outside centre Garry Ringrose runs short off Henshaw, out-half Ross Byrne is the pullback option, and blindside wing O’Brien swings onto Byrne’s outside shoulder late.


So what is Henshaw’s role in this play?

“The beauty of the 9 to 12 pass is that you get good width straight from one pass,” he explains. “The 9 probably always has the best pass in the backline so the effectiveness of the width of his pass to the 12 allows you to get going.

“That can create a bit of hesitancy for the defence if you can get running opposite their 12. That makes them doubt if their own 10 is going to get to you [to make a tackle]. The defending 10 can often be in a difficult position if you’re running hard as a 12 – you can get a good carry against a 10 who is chasing across to you.

“So when the defence’s 12 starts doubting that their 10 is going to make the tackle or might need assistance in the tackle, then that’s where the defence’s 12 and 13 are under pressure. That’s where you might throw the ball out the back to your 10 who is turning the corner.

“As a 12, I’m always trying to work on seeing what the defence are doing, seeing what my opposing 12 is doing. If he’s going to help his 10, then the ball is going out the back or it’s the short ball to my 13.

“Your own 10 is key as well out the back, that he is communicating. I’d say to him, ‘ Talk to me on the run, tell me what you want’ and then it’s about being able to adapt to that.”

Watch below how Henshaw opts to carry in this instance as Connacht bring linespeed, targeting the inside shoulder of out-half Jack Carty.


Henshaw has been on the other side of this play very frequently and understands how difficult it is to defend.

“Especially when it’s run at pace and the attacking 12 and 13 are running really straight. If they’re running a bit out, it can be easier to defend. If they run really straight and make you sit down, that’s where the move really works.

“It’s a basic move but it’s also hard to defend because you have so many options – you can run yourself, you can tip the ball to the 13, or go out the back to the 10. When it’s run well, it’s a really good move and the beauty of it is that width you get off it from first pass.”

Last weekend, Henshaw had another assist for Keenan’s try as he offloaded to the fullback in the left corner in the second half.


Eyebrows were raised when the try was allowed to stand and Henshaw is able to have a smile about it now.

“There were suspicions that it was slightly forward… I’m not sure myself. But I’ll take it!

“I was laughing with Hugo after, I was like ‘marginally forward potentially?’”

Nonetheless, offloading is part of the game that Henshaw enjoys. It’s all about balance, he explains.

“When you get a bit of space, use footwork, and win the collision – that’s where an offload is on your mind. We had moments in the Bath game where we were forcing things, ball to deck, forced turnovers, so that’s also going through your mind. When you get momentum, you don’t want to throw a loose offload and suddenly it’s stopped. It’s about finding a balance in my game, being able to do it but not overdo it.

“It’s the hardest thing to defend. When there are offloads, you can’t really get a defensive line set and when the game is broken up, it’s really hard to defend against.”

Elsewhere in the Bath game, Henshaw delivered a classy bit of handling close to the tryline as Leinster used penalty advantage to score through Ciarán Frawley.

Watch below as Henshaw receives the ball at first receiver and appears to be charging for the tryline himself only to drop the ball off to Sexton swinging in behind with blindside wing O’Brien at a late stage.


“That was something we spoke about after the first fixture against Bath in the Aviva,” says Henshaw of this play.

“There were times in that first game where we were sending one of the backs up on their own and the option to give it back to the 10, often there wasn’t a connection there.

“We spoke about how we could have done that in the first Bath game, so I had that in my head going into last weekend’s game – that ‘shoulder ball’ back where you show as if you’re going to carry but then give that late shoulder ball close to the line, it’s a nice option.

“You have to assess it and talk to the 10. If you’re not hearing the 10, you’re more often than not going to carry it. You need good, clear communication. That’s essential in those moments.”

Sexton gave Henshaw the call in this instance and then he had the option to hit Frawley on a short line or go out the back to O’Brien. The former option yielded a score.


Henshaw has developed a deep understanding with Sexton for Leinster and Ireland, as well as with outside centre Ringrose. Their cohesion doesn’t simply mean that they always know for sure what the others are thinking and Henshaw explains that verbal communication remains crucial.

“I really prefer if there’s clear comms but sometimes if you have a pen advantage, say, you will just go for it and make sure they’re ready to give the pass or that kick through.

“For us, we always try to have clear lines of communication. There were moments in the game last weekend where a few of us weren’t on the same page and you see things breaking down. The three of us work well when we have those open lines of comms.”

leinsters-robbie-henshaw-and-johnny-sexton Henshaw and Sexton. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Defensively, their familiarity with each other is just as crucial. In midfield, there are often only split seconds in which to make decisions about which player to tackle, when to bite in, or when to drift off.

Again, actually speaking to each other is vital – particularly during the lulls in play.

“When there are different running lines and different pictures being thrown at you at pace, that’s where it can become tricky,” says Henshaw.

“The work you do during the week or even during the game… you get together and speak about what you’re seeing, asking if we can be more aggressive.

“For instance, when the attack throw that 9 to 12 ball we were talking about, and they go out the back to the 10, I might ask if can I go and shoot the 10 and close him down earlier without risking Garry’s position and making him vulnerable.

“They’re the type of conversations we’d have mid-game, asking the lads if they want me to do more of that or stay connected?”

Henshaw is a very strong defender and often makes under-the-radar contributions that make his team-mates lives easier. He is well capable of forcing errors from ball-carriers in the tackle but isn’t particularly renowned for winning turnovers at the breakdown.


In that sense, it was interesting to see him make two jackal turnovers against Ulster back in November, one of which we can see above.

“It’s actually not [something he has been working on], it was just the circumstances of that game,” says Henshaw of that burst of jackaling.

“But we definitely have to try and come up with big moments in defence, that’s essential for the team whether it be trying to get the ball back in the tackle, forcing an error, or getting a poach.

“Our defence coaches always ask us to challenge ourselves to come up with big moments in the game.”

Ireland’s Rob Herring, Craig Casey and Robbie Henshaw helped to launch Lucozade Sport’s new fully recyclable bottle, featuring reduced plastic sleeves, on sale across Ireland now. Lucozade Sport has been a proud partner of the IRFU since 2012, and has committed to ensuring that all its bottles will be made from 100% recycled plastic commencing this year.

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