ROBBIE HENSHAW’S FIRST taste of a Lions tour didn’t go as he would have wanted. The Leinster centre was 23 on that 2017 trip to New Zealand, and was only settling into life on tour when injury brought his involvement to an early end.
Henshaw started four games, playing against the Blues, Highlanders, Chiefs and Hurricanes, before a torn pectoral muscle saw him fly home before the second Test against the All Blacks.
Naturally, he’s determined to make a bigger impact this time around, and explains that he feels better placed to do just that thanks to his experience in 2017.
“I suppose I was quite a young player back in New Zealand. I went into it not knowing how things worked,” Henshaw says.
“From being there and having that experience, obviously it went well for me, I played a lot of games but I ended up getting injured and didn’t really get to put my name in for those last two Tests in New Zealand.
“So, I suppose it was a good learning about how things work, but this will be different to New Zealand, obviously with the current circumstances. But it’s great to have that experience there that I know how to approach it.”
As things stand he’s likely to be one of the first names on Warren Gatland’s team sheet. Henshaw has been in the form of his life this season, excelling in his defensive duties while also offering an improved attacking threat – the most obvious examples being his superb solo try against France last year and the step, burst of pace and offload to play in Josh van der Flier against Wales in February.
Not only is he a better rugby player to the one Warren Gatland knew four years ago, he’s also grown as a leader on and off the pitch.
“I was quite a shy person going into the last (Lions) camp, very quiet, so maybe (I would like to) be more vocal around the team, but being myself, I suppose.
“There is a great group of lads there that I’ve played with and against… So learning just to be yourself more so, and not go into your shell is a big thing, and to express yourself on the pitch and off the pitch.”
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Injury ended Henshaw’s tour in 2017. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Of course there is a long way to go between now and that first Test against the Springboks on 24 July, so the challenge now is to keep in-form and stay injury-free.
Not that he’s been holding back on the pitch. Henshaw was superb in Leinster’s win against Ulster last Friday, and as usual his physically was striking. His crunching hit on Robert Baloucoune – which resulted in Henshaw leaving the pitch for a HIA – split opinion, but was also the sign of a player who isn’t overthinking the need to mind himself ahead of the summer tour.
“I have always remembered that, even from my soccer days. If you don’t complete a tackle or pull out half-hearted, that’s when you get injured.
“So I kind of brought that into sport in general and professional sport. You have to be all in or else that’s where you will suffer in the end.
“Mentality wise, I’d prefer to be playing, and stay sharp. You’d rather be playing just to keep sharp, keep fit, because fitness wise it’s hard to mimic and replicate match minutes in training, it’s pretty tough to do.”
Henshaw says he was “pretty nervous” watching the Lions squad announcement, even if most on the outside considered him one of the safest bets.
Other calls were harder to predict, with many viewing Garry Ringrose as unlucky to miss out, while the inclusion of Henshaw’s close friend Bundee Aki was one of the bigger surprises.
“I was very, very disappointed for Garry, it was very tough, the squad selection, very competitive,” Henshaw continues.
Henshaw capped a fine performance against Ulster with a try. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO
“And obviously Bundee, I know Bundee has put in incredible work over the last four years and his performances have been class, so he’s definitely been there on his reputation for his past performances and what he’s done. I know he’s going to hit good form coming into the summer.
“He’s been training very hard, he’s been telling me, for the last few weeks, but obviously with Garry it’s very tough.