I wouldn't mind going back to full-back – Henshaw
The glint in Robbie Henshaw’s eye is matched by the wry smile that is etched across his face when he is asked about playing at full-back in his last game for Leinster two weeks ago.
For those who watched Henshaw in his early days, the majority would probably have hedged their bets that, long-term, he would have ended up in the number 15 jersey.
Leinster had other ideas however, or more specifically Joe Schmidt did.
The rationale was understandable. Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy brought the curtain down on the finest midfield partnership this country has produced and Schmidt saw something in Henshaw that suggested he could help to fill their sizeable boots.
To be fair, it hasn’t worked out too badly, particularly because there aren’t too many better talent-spotters than Schmidt. Yet for others, there is a nagging sense of what might have been had Henshaw continued in the full-back role.
Fitness permitting, Schmidt will face the conundrum of selecting two between Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki, which means that one world-class centre may not make the match-day 23.
It is exactly the type of selection headache that every coach wants but Henshaw’s last outing against Benetton a fortnight ago offered a rare glimpse of the threat he could pose with more space and time on the ball.
The Athlone native slotted in at full-back and covered the back-field extremely well. He even had a couple of raking touch-finders, a throwback to his GAA days.
Henshaw has never started a game for Leinster outside of the two centre positions but he did slot in at full-back against Munster in Dublin a couple of seasons ago.
When he first broke through in Connacht he played at full-back and earlier this year, a man who watched Henshaw develop from an exciting schoolboy into a fully-fledged international by the age of 19 (when he made his debut at full-back) summed up the situation nicely.
“A Ferrari can pull a trailer, but you don’t want your Ferrari pulling a trailer. He can do the job, but you get a tractor in at 12 and the Ferrari outside him,” John Muldoon told ‘Off The Ball’.
“Robbie’s best position is 15, absolute fact. And he wants to play 15.
“To me, playing him at 12 is a travesty to him but you need your best players on the pitch, and if Robbie’s your best 12, you play him at 12, if you’ve got no other option.”
And therein lies the crux of the issue. Since Henshaw became Ireland’s first-choice inside centre, there has always been a feeling that, privately at least, he feels he can bring much more to the party than just trucking it up in midfield and bringing others around him into play.
The emergence of Aki into a quality Ireland international could, in theory, free up Henshaw to play in his supposed preferred position but then again, Schmidt is not exactly short of full-back options at the moment.
Despite the fact that it seems like Henshaw has been around for a long time, he only turned 25 last summer. But given that he hasn’t started at full-back since his debut five years ago, the chances of doing so again are slim.
Sitting in Carton House, Henshaw is relaxed and his face lights up when that idea is put to him.
“He’d probably laugh at me,” Henshaw smiles when asked what Schmidt’s reaction would be if he asked for a run in the 15 jersey.
“I think he knows that I have played plenty of rugby there. It’s where he can get the best out of me is where he will play me. That’s the centre and that’s where I enjoy at the moment.”
One wonders what Schmidt made of Henshaw’s cameo at full-back and while it is definitely not on the cards to play there against Argentina on Saturday, he enjoyed the chance to showcase more of his skills.
“Yeah, it was nice,” he enthuses.
“I think the last time I played there was two or three years ago against Munster at the Aviva. I went back to 15 just for like 10 minutes. It was nice, it was a bit different.
“Open land with plenty of space. It’s always nice to have that. I suppose it took me back to the early days of my career. It was enjoyable.
“More freedom, more eyes I think. More pressure under the high ball. If you get the ball in space, you have options to kick, run or pass. You have more time on the ball, which is nice for you to make your decision.
“Things have gone well for me in the centre, I have enjoyed it in the centre.
“But I think for me, to be able to put my hand up and show that I can cover more than one position is probably another string to my bow.
“Maybe one day I might get a shot back there. I suppose if the opportunity came, I wouldn’t mind going back but I’ll stay focused on the centre for now.”
Henshaw might be waiting a while for that day to come, but it is certainly a weapon that Schmidt should not forget is available to him.
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