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Injury woe has made me even hungrier: Henshaw

 

In pain: Robbie Henshaw
In pain: Robbie Henshaw

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Robbie Henshaw approaches the second act of his World Cup life older, wiser and more aware of the fragility of professional rugby.

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Still only 26, he has achieved so much already; winning tries against England and New Zealand, a couple of PRO14s with Leinster and Connacht and a Champions Cup with his current province.

And yet injury has robbed him of more great days. He was a Lion in 2017 but a pectoral tear meant he was gone before the Tests, while he was present when Ireland won the Grand Slam and beat New Zealand in 2018, but watched from the stands as they claimed their prize.

While the injury that kept him out of the opening two games of the 2015 World Cup was something of a rarity four years ago, he has been blighted with problems during this cycle.

It is partly that experience that makes the centre so unwilling to start making bold pronouncements about what his team can achieve in the coming weeks. He knows that Lady Luck can be the cruellest mistress.

He has endured his fair share of injuries, but his position and role on the field put him in the firing line. As a hard-carrying and big-tackling centre, risk is part of the job.

So, he approaches this window with huge enthusiasm but a little hesitancy.

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"Definitely, it makes you want to get out there," he said as we met during a recent down week during the squad's preparations.

"You don't want to be on the sideline watching the All Blacks game in the Aviva. It was unbelievable to be there, but you'd rather be playing.

"Yeah, it definitely gives you that bit of hunger to make sure you're involved in the summer series and on the plane.

"I'm not getting too far ahead of myself, just working week-to-week to make sure I'm getting better as a player. That's where I am now, I'm sure the excitement will follow that.

"But the setbacks have made me hungrier."

Henshaw has sharpened his focus on his own body in order to arrive on game day in the best shape possible.

"I've had a couple of freak injuries, there's a little bit of adaptations to my rehab to make sure my body is perfect and I'm not going out with a bit of tightness or soreness, I'd pull back and make sure everything is perfect before I go," he said.

"I'm not taking any risks, because I've missed out on a good few games I'd have liked to play in due to a few freak injuries and a couple of injuries I potentially could have avoided through my own naivety."

At 22, Henshaw revelled in the spotlight the World Cup threw at him and on that unforgettable Sunday afternoon in Cardiff he came of age against France.

The outpouring of joy that day soon turned to disappointment as a host of senior players were forced to miss the quarter-final and Ireland failed to perform in their absence. They believe they've learnt from it.

"I'm a more mature person and player, an older head on the same set of shoulders," he said of his own growth in the four years since.

"It was a funny one the last time going in, I didn't really know what to expect. I was blown away by how unbelievable a feeling it was to play in a World Cup. So, the enjoyment and excitement building up to the games shocked me. That's one thing that, finger's crossed, I'll relish and look forward to.

"The competition, the travelling fans from all of the different countries, the fact that it's in a new country... it's all exciting. There's so much to look forward to, but you've to get through this bit.

"That (the France game) was definitely one of my strongest performances playing in green.

"Just where I ended up finding a bit of space, getting some good touches on the ball and putting some guys into space.

"It was probably the best atmosphere I played in, it was incredible. It was soured by the injuries afterwards, but everyone was buzzing after such a huge performance and the crowd that were there.

"Since that game and the amount of key players we lost everyone knows that they have to be ready and prepared for anything to happen. I think we'll be better for that experience for this World Cup. It's definitely a challenge, but everyone is preparing themselves to be ready."

As long as he's fit, Henshaw will travel and once again Joe Schmidt has been talking about his capacity to cover the full-back slot if needed.

That's despite a tough outing in his less familiar position in the loss to England last spring.

"I always expected it was going to be difficult, playing against England - they've a strong kicking game and a good strategy. They played well that day and found space behind, which meant there was a lot of running and covering to do," he recalled. "Being on the losing side meant it wasn't nice to deal with. It was a good experience to be thrown in at the highest level, but a tough one."

All that experience has hardened him for the next couple of months and Ireland will go to Japan with big ambitions about what they could achieve. Just don't expect them to go shouting it from the rooftops.

"It runs through your head a little bit, we really have to keep building and that's the focus: to keep getting better each week," Henshaw said.

"It's going to be a long period of time away from family and being out of the country. It will be very different to the last World Cup when you were in the UK and it was comfortable. This won't be comfortable in a different environment and a different climate. You think about all of that.

"The group we have is a special group and we can't get too far ahead of ourselves."

With England and Wales (twice) to come before Japan, there's no fear of that.

Robbie Henshaw is an Audi ambassador

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