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Robbie Henshaw tapped into Michael Jordan mindset to shine in Champions Cup semi-final

The centre used Jordan documentary The Last Dance as inspiration to overcome illness and play a key role against Toulouse.

Henshaw overcame illness to play a key role against Toulouse.
Henshaw overcame illness to play a key role against Toulouse.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated May 26th 2022, 8:10 AM

SOAKING UP LEINSTER’S Heineken Champions Cup semi-final win over Toulouse, Johnny Sexton was quick to redirect any praise of his own performance towards his teammates.

In doing so, he revealed that Robbie Henshaw had recovered from illness in the days leading into the game to deliver a high-quality display, the centre continuing the fine form he’s produced since returning from injury earlier in the season.

Henshaw lasted 64 minutes against Toulouse and got through an impressive amount of work — only James Lowe and Jack Conan (13) made more carries than the 28-year-old (12),  while only Ross Molony (14) made more tackles (13).

“For him to turn up and play the way he did, it’s a testament to him,” Sexton said.

Most of that came from his own grit and determination, but Henshaw also looked to Chicago Bulls icon Michael Jordan for inspiration.

“Yeah, it was a rough week,” Henshaw says.

“I was in bed on Wednesday and Thursday, I was pretty grim, just with a flu, but I got out of bed for the Captain’s Run on Friday and I felt somewhat better and then felt better on Saturday.

“But yeah, definitely struggling for air in that game, even though I just kind of dug deep, just kept the head down and tried to get on with it the best I could. But yeah, definitely coming out of it I felt positive that I could dig deep and just go for it for the 65 minutes.

“Once I got into the game it was a bit easier but definitely at times in the game where you want that extra kick recovering wise, catching your breath, it was a small bit off, but again, it’s amazing what adrenaline can do in the heat of the moment.

I rewatched The Last Dance again recently and it was an episode where Michael Jordan was violently ill for one of the play-off games and I had that kind of thought that it got him through, in parts he was out on his feet and then towards the end he just found a way, and that’s what I was kind of thinking of as well.” 

Leinster’s own last dance of this European season comes on Saturday evening in Marseille when the province take on La Rochelle in the 2021/22 decider.

La Rochelle represent familiar foes, having knocked Leinster out in last year’s semi-final stages. Henshaw’s international career also briefly overlapped with that of La Rochelle boss Ronan O’Gara, the former Munster out-half winning his last Test cap in February 2013, just four months before a 19-year-old Henshaw collected his first cap.

robbie-henshaw-of-leinster-with-pita-ahki-and-juan-cruz-mallia-of-stade-toulousain-during-the-heineken-champions-cup-semi-final-at-the-aviva-stadium-in-dublin-ireland-picture-date-saturday-may-14 Henshaw in action against Toulouse. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

“I spent one (Ireland) camp with him,” Henshaw says.

“I was brought in to train for the last Six Nations he was involved in. I trained with him, that would have been the only time. I played against him a few times as well, down in Musgrave Park, I played against him once. Only brief encounters with him as a player.

It was about 10 years now (since I trained with him), I’m showing my age. He was good, he was a quality player, really good on the ball, nice and calm, a nice guy as well, he would give time to the younger lads, chat away with you, ask stuff. He was sound.”

Any pleasantries will be parked for 80 minutes on Saturday as O’Gara looks to end Leinster’s drive for a fifth European title for the second year running, and bring Champions Cup success to La Rochelle for the first time in the club’s history.

Leinster travel to the south of France as favourites, but O’Gara exuded a quiet confidence during his own press briefing earlier in the week

La Rochelle’s power put Leinster under extreme pressure at the Stade Marcel-Deflandre 12 months ago, and Henshaw is anticipating a similarly abrasive battle this time around under the burning French sun, with temperatures currently expected to hit the high 20s on Saturday.

robbie-henshaw Henshaw has been in fine form since recovering from injury. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It’s a final, we need to just do what we can to win and if it’s ugly, it’s ugly,” Henshaw explains.

“Whatever way the game unfolds. Looking back to the last time we were in the final and we came out winners (2018), it was Racing and it wasn’t the prettiest game by any means, but we got it done. It’s what we set out to do at the start of the year.

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“But we’ll definitely have a tough task ahead of us in terms of La Rochelle being there (in the final) last year, they’ve good experience and probably being top seeds in the competition, they really have a good style of rugby, they’re hard to break down, they’ve a great defence, really strong at the breakdown. So it’s not going to be by any means easy for us at all.

“I think we need to play I suppose a similar style to how we’ve played all year and that’s play to where all the space is.

We know what they’re going to do. They’re going to be aggressive off the line, they have a really good defensive system in terms of Ronan O’Gara, what he brought to Crusaders, that kind of hard up defence. So they give you space wide but they are quick to shut it down. Not like some teams who’ll give you the space and they’ll kind of drift to the space. Whereas La Rochelle give you the space but then shut it down from the outside in.

“It will be a tough task for us to attack them because they’ll be working hard off the line. But yeah, it will make an exciting game and one that our attack will have to be on, and if turnovers happen, we’ve seen a lot of their tries come from turnovers, so we need to make sure we’re not giving the ball away and really solid in that department.”  

Following Triple Crown success in March, a win at the Stade Vélodrome would leave Henshaw with another happy ending to a campaign that started with so much injury frustration. Having played some of the best rugby of his career last season, the centre missed Ireland’s November win over the All Blacks with a foot injury and didn’t make his first appearance of the campaign for Leinster until later that same month.

“That’s the game we’re in, you have to take the good with the bad but certainly, yeah, it wasn’t the start I wanted coming off the back of a great year for me,” he continues.

“But again, you have to get on with it and try to get back to where you were, so yeah, I’m in the process of staying positive and keep building towards the end.

“It’s kind of how I visualised the end of the season going, finishing the season strong personally was definitely one of my goals, certainly after dropping out of games and picking up niggles here and there, it was a slow start to the year. So yeah, it’s been strong personally for me, and it’s been good on that note.”  

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Ciarán Kennedy

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