Connacht left no stone unturned in their bid to stop Robbie Henshaw from heading to Dublin. The 22-years-old Connacht and Ireland centre confirmed his departure from his home province on Sunday, before signing with Leinster on Monday evening for the next three seasons. Connacht coach Pat Lam says Connacht, with the help of the IRFU, did everything possible to keep Henshaw at the Sportsground, but in the end it was the Athlone native's decision to leave.
As the province's most iconic home grown player since Eric Elwood, who as Connacht coach gave him his first senior start in 2012, Henshaw's departure has divided opinion. But more overwhelming is the great sense of disappointment and sadness that a player nurtured in the province, whose family have been steeped in Connacht Rugby, has opted to head up the M50 to Leinster. Had it been to England or France, supporters could still follow his career with a huge sense of pride and involvement; few are going to take such pleasure watching him high-five his Leinster teammates.
There are those who promote the belief that Henshaw can only realise his potential with Leinster, but that ignores and also denigrates the increasing harnessing of talent in the west, the coaching acumen of Pat Lam and his team, and the progression of the Connacht brand. Meanwhile there are the Connacht supporters who struggle to accept rugby is now a business - that head will sometimes overrule career decisions a rugby player must make.
Pat Lam understands Henshaw's decision has been more keenly felt because he is a born and bred Connacht player, but says it is the nature of the rugby business. "What makes it so disappointing is because he is a local boy and an icon, but he is not the first Connacht, Leinster, Munster or Ulster player who has left his home province and he won't be the last. I have coached teams and played in teams where we have had home-grown world class players, but that doesn't guarantee success. What does guarantee success, is your structures, your culture, the game you play, the teamwork. I know the fans are disappointed, but ultimately what they want to see is a successful team, and that is what we are doing at the moment and Robbie is a part of it as well, but we want to continue building year-on-year so that Connacht Rugby is successful."
Lam praised the work of Connacht CEO Willie Ruane and the IRFU's performance director David Nucifora. "Without a doubt, Willie [Ruane], our CEO, and the IRFU did a tremendous job. There were three parties involved and throughout the whole process we did everything we could, but again it comes back to the player's decision and you respect that. The IRFU were very supportive. David [Nucifora, IRFU performance director] and Willie Ruane worked very closely together, and we are really pleased with the support we had from the IRFU in the whole negotiation process."
David Nucifora said he was disappointed for Connacht saying "I am disappointed for Connacht that Robbie has decided to leave, but pleased for Irish rugby that he has committed to a further three years. I know the decision Robbie has taken to move from Connacht is not one he has taken lightly.”
Henshaw, who had negotiating support from a former Connacht captain and assistant coach, Michael Cosgrave, and family members, had originally planned to make a decision by Christmas, but it was only last week he informed Connacht Rugby of his decision after what he described as a "difficult process" saying, "I would like to thank Connacht Rugby, the IRFU and Leinster for allowing me time to consider my future. This has been a long and difficult process and while I am sorry to be leaving Connacht I look forward to the next chapter of my rugby career at Leinster. The support I have enjoyed from the fans in the Sportsground and throughout the province is something that I really value and I want to thank them for four great years.”
Lam has already signed former Connacht centre Eoin Griffin from London Irish for next season, joining Bundee Aki, Craig Ronaldson, Dave McSharry, Rory Parata, and Peter Robb in the midfield. "Our main goal is to get Connacht Rugby into the Champions Cup and on the back of that, the contracts group is trying to build the strongest possible team - not to just to play in it, but to play well." he said.
Nor is Lam ruling out welcoming Henshaw back to the Sportsground saying "There is no doubt this will always be his home, and who knows what is down the line. If he wanted to come back, the door is open for him - of course it is."