The Stade Vélodrome does not hold happy memories for Robbie Henshaw, but he is determined to leave the Marseille cauldron as a winner with Ireland on the Guinness Six Nations’ opening night.
Henshaw is one of 16 members of Ireland’s current Six Nations squad who played in Leinster’s 2022 Heineken Champions Cup final defeat to La Rochelle at the home of football club Olympique de Marseille.
France are taking their Six Nations home matches around the country in the coming weeks, as their regular Stade de France base is unavailable due to preparations for this summer’s Olympics in Paris.
Although his last visit to Marseille was a losing one with Leinster, Henshaw has enjoyed plenty of recent success on French soil with both province and country, and is clearly relishing all that will come with Friday’s heavyweight opener against les Bleus.
“It’s one of the toughest games, playing France away. Definitely down in Marseille, it’s going to be a new challenge for everyone. A handful of us played there before, it’s an intense environment,” he said.
“France, the force that they’re going to bring out, we’ll need to be at our best to deal with that environment and that team.
“Last week has been a good prep, leading into a shorter week this week. It’s real positive from our end and we’re really excited to get going.”
The Athlone man added: “It’s an incredible stadium. I saw there were a few World Cup games that were held there (last year). As opposed to playing at Stade de France, it’s a tight stadium.
“It’s obviously a football pitch and the crowd is right there in your face, so it’s a tight stadium and it can be intimidating at times when the crowd are up. We got to experience that playing for Leinster a couple of seasons ago and it was different.”
Having had his World Cup campaign cruelly impacted by a hamstring injury, Henshaw is looking sharp again after getting a run of matches under his belt with Leinster, including playing every minute of the Investec Champions Cup pool phase.
The 30-year-old had just one start during the 2023 Six Nations, following an injury-disrupted build-up, but he made it count with a try-scoring performance in the Grand Slam-clinching victory at home to England.
Competition for places in the centre remains as intense as ever, with Henshaw, Stuart McCloskey, Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki, the recent recipient of the Guinness Rugby Writers of Ireland Men’s 15s Player of the Year award, all striving to start.
“It’s great to have competition,” insisted the 67 times-capped Henshaw. “That’s what drives you on as a player, to keep trying to get the best out of yourself and out of the team.
“For me individually, it’s about doing my best on the training pitch and being confident that what I’ve done over the last few months in club rugby with Leinster has been good to hopefully put my hand up.
“I’m feeling good, feeling confident, and all the lads in the centre jersey are all competing. That definitely drives our performance.”
Andy Farrell’s men have spent the past week at a warm-weather training camp in Quinta do Lago in Portugal. The 34-player squad, along with the three training panellists, trained fully on Monday, giving the defending champions a welcome clean bill of health at the start of match week.
Ireland also got some valuable work done in the Algarve prior to last year’s Six Nations and also the Rugby World Cup, so Henshaw is hoping it can translate to more good results for the team as they look to hit the ground running in Marseille.
“It’s been brilliant, for us to be lucky enough to get out here in Portugal. We’re so lucky to be here and to train in such good conditions. Such a great environment and a great set-up.
“It’s a good ‘feel-good’ camp, I suppose, heading into a tough game on Friday night, so everything is really positive.”
Of course, this is Ireland’s first game since their World Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of New Zealand. The playing personnel may be largely the same, but there is a new captain in Peter O’Mahony, and plenty of interest in who replaces the retired Jonathan Sexton at out-half.
Asked about moving on without such a talismanic figure as Sexton, Henshaw acknowledged:
It’s obviously going to be tough to replace Johnny, but we’ve picked Peter as captain. He’s led the group unbelievably well, not only just now, but over the last five or six seasons he’s been an incredible leader in this team.
“I think we’ve a great leader there in our captain. He’s driving it on from his end, and I think there’s an onus on a lot of players to step up and be vocal and lead by example.
“It’s a great challenge for this group, coming into a fresh Six Nations and to build that leadership.”
Given he was Ireland’s back-up out-half for most of the World Cup and has been showing strong form with Munster, Jack Crowley could be handed his first Six Nations start in the number 10 jersey against Fabien Galthié’s side.
Henshaw would have no fear about the 24-year-old Cork native stepping up, noting: “Jack’s been playing brilliant for Munster. He’s been running things very well down there. He’s had a bit of experience over the last season as well, in the World Cup and in the pre-World Cup warm-ups he played very well, against Italy and Samoa.
“He definitely has good experience and I think he’s going to be brilliant in terms of he’s trained really well, he’s really confident, and he’s stepping up. He’s grown.
“He’s still very young, and like we’re all learning in this environment, you’re always learning new things every season, every game you play. We’re always developing as players.
“Jack and the others 10s will continue to develop with that experience. Like I said, his confidence has been really good and he’s been running things really well in training.”
While Ireland enjoyed some hugely memorable World Cup nights at the Stade de France last September and October, Six Nations away wins over France have been few and far between.
There was Sexton’s magical, match-winning drop goal in Saint-Denis in 2018, four years before that Ireland gave Brian O’Driscoll an emotional title-winning send-off with a 22-20 victory, and then there is the gap back to O’Driscoll’s hat-trick of tries in that famous 2000 triumph.
With both sides fuelled by their World Cup ‘hurt’ from just three-and-a-half months ago, Henshaw said of preparing to face France: “You look back at what they produced in the World Cup, and even look back to the games they played in the Six Nations last year.
“We’ll do a bit of review on that, and then also having a good eye on what the French clubs are producing, looking at any trends in the club game. A lot of the French players play their club rugby there.
“They might bring something different, every team might change their plan a little bit, so we need to be adaptable and we need to be ready if they do throw something different that we haven’t seen. We need to be ready.”
If Ireland can get back to winning ways in France’s oldest city, it could set them up for a tilt at becoming the first back-to-back Six Nations champions in seven years (England did it last in 2017). There have no successive Grand Slams since France achieved the very rare feat back in 1998.
“We’re always looking to build, we’re always looking to learn from past experiences, positive and negative. There’s loads to go for the group and there’s loads of improvement needed.
“I think we’ve all recognised that, players and staff. We can definitely keep driving it on and keep getting better as a group,” concluded Henshaw.