Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw insists that a 14-minute cameo against Australia last November provided the ‘shock to the system’ needed to prepare him for his first start in a home international against South Africa.
With Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne forming a new centre partnership, it was always going to be a big ask against such physical opponents but the Connacht youngster acquitted himself well in the 29-15 win.
“You just have to focus on your role and your responsibilities within the team, doing what you can do and winning the moment every time,” said Henshaw, speaking after his first full 80 minutes at the Aviva Stadium.
“I mentioned earlier that I came off the bench against Australia last year and it was a shock to the system, the speed of the game and how physical they were.
“I really didn’t let it slip this year coming into this November and knew I’d be ready for a start or to come off the bench. I really got myself together mentally and prepared myself well.
“It was a massive step up. I don’t think I’ve hit bigger fellas in my life! I was quite shocked by the size of them but got used to it after a couple of hits.”
This was Henshaw’s fourth Ireland cap, adding to his debut at full-back against the USA in June 2013 and subsequent appearances as a replacement against Canada and the Wallabies.
Having been told on Tuesday he was set to start, the assistance of Test veteran Gordon D’Arcy aided the 21-year-old’s preparation for the biggest game of his career to date.
D’Arcy was part of the most-capped centre pairing in world rugby alongside the recently retired Brian O’Driscoll, and Henshaw felt the experience of those around him played a role in him making the step up.
“‘Darce’ gave me a hand to run at 12 during the week. He said, ‘Do as you do at 13 but just one slot in’. I was quite comfortable,” he explained.
“I had two good guys on either side of me, in Johnny (Sexton) and Jared. Two experienced players who kept talking to me all night and helping me out.
“Last week we got together so the last two weeks we played together and got a bit of experience together. We’ve built a bit of a relationship there that we could work with coming into this game.”
He was particularly pleased when his well-placed kick and follow-up chase, early in the second half, that forced Willie le Roux to concede a five-metre lineout. Rhys Ruddock touched down from the resulting maul to set Ireland on their way to a confidence-boosting victory with Georgia and Australia to come in the remaining GUINNESS Series games.
Henshaw admitted: “I gave Johnny a call and said, ‘Hit me wide’. It was a spur of the moment thing. I was going to run it initially and then saw there was a little bit of space in behind. I kicked through it – put my head down and got through – I got the bounce, it didn’t go too far and le Roux just chipped it out. It was good.
“The first game (of the series) was always key, to get the win there…especially against the number two team in the world, we’re delighted to get the win. To win out there was certainly a tough task. It was really good to get over the line. It sets us up nicely for the next two weeks.”
Speaking about his two starting centres at the post-match press conference, Joe Schmidt said: “I think they did well. I think all week, we knew it was a tough ask and we talked about it on Thursday. I know it’s been a topic of discussion and I know people will make their own minds up.
“We’ll review the game but coming cold in reflection, I thought they both did incredibly well. There was some really physical defence from both players. I thought Robbie gave us gain-line and played intelligently.
“Jared ran a great support line off Rob Kearney when Rob came back and managed to get through the gap. Jared was quick to pick him up and that’s the sort of intelligence you want in a back-line.
“We’re very used to having the very best intelligence in our back-line. I thought the two of them combined did a really good job for us.”
Payne suffered a suspected foot sprain late the second half and had to be replaced in the final few minutes. The injury has been X-rayed and Schmidt said they should have an update ‘by Monday or Tuesday’.
The Ireland head coach is also hopeful that Payne’s Ulster colleague Chris Henry, who was withdrawn from the team due to a virus, will not miss the rest of the GUINNESS Series.