‘They never changed’ – the midlands boys with Six Nations dreams who stay true to their roots

TWO DAYS AFTER Ireland’s exit from the 2015 World Cup, Robbie Henshaw was back in his old secondary school conducting a defence session with the senior rugby team.

Henshaw in action for Ireland during the 2015 World Cup. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Crashing out of such a major tournament at the quarter-final stage was a major disappointment for him to process, but he has always made time to give something back to the school that helped shaped him as a player.

This was no different.

The training times at the Marist College in Athlone have never changed, and Henshaw has never forgotten the schedule.

Regardless of the despair he was feeling, he made sure he was available to offer advice to the next generation of rugby talent after captaining the school to a Senior Cup back in 2012.

That’s the impact this midlands school tends to have on the rugby players that come through their system and plenty of former students have called in over the years.

Connacht’s star out-half Jack Carty — who won a Junior Cup during his time at the Marist — is one of their regular visitors.

He was just one year ahead of Henshaw and their careers went down a similar path shortly after school, with both players playing a part in Connacht’s famous Pro12 triumph in 2016.

So, when Carty was named in the Ireland Six Nations squad for the opening rounds of the competition earlier this week, there was plenty to celebrate back home.

“The phone was hopping during the week congratulating the school,” rugby coach and Marist teacher Mick Loftus told The42.

“It’s a great success and to have the two lads who are friends meeting up with the squad prior to rounds 1 and 2 is great.

“The lads are great, they come back to the schools and give back to the schools which is very important.

“And they don’t have to be asked which is lovely. They turn up every so often and have a chat with the first years and watch games. It’s great.”

A baby-faced Jack Carty during his playing days at the Marist College in Athlone. Source: Michael Loftus/Marist College.

Along with the Marist, Carty and Henshaw honed their craft at the local Buccaneers club, another key branch of the rugby nursery scene in Athlone.

It was there that coach Charlie Couper first came across Jack Carty as a seven-year-old mini player who was already finding his fit at out-half.

That was the position for him from the outset. He would regularly be seen out on the pitch kicking conversions with a bag of balls by his side. Couper never saw him with anything other than the number 10 on his back.

It was different for Henshaw. He cycled through a few different positions in the backs before maturing into the towering centre he is today. He started out rugby life as a scrum-half before switching out to full-back for a while.

The pair played with the Buccs throughout the underage grades before progressing onto the Connacht Academy to thrive as senior players. Of course, Henshaw developed into an international talent and has also made four appearances for the British and Irish Lions.

But back in the Buccs days, it was Carty who was playing the leading role.

Charlie Couper has known Carty since he was a mini player. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Jack was always the star scoring tries and kicking conversions when he was young,” says Couper who guided Carty to that Junior Cup triumph with the Marist.

“I had Jack when he was in first year in the Marist and I think Robbie was a year behind Jack and they played with the club too.

“Robbie was small little lad and had a nice little pass so that’s why they threw him in at scrum-half. It wasn’t until later that he grew into the man he is now.”

The Leinster star might have overtaken his former Connacht teammate as their careers diverged down different roads through the years, but Carty is enjoying a superb season so far with Connacht.

Couper remembers the 26-year-old as a player who was always serious about his rugby and who “set the standards for the others” as an underage player.

And it seems that those leadership traits are coming to fruition once again with Carty leading Connacht into the Challenge Cup quarter-finals after scoring an impressive intercept try against Bordeaux Begles earlier this month.

Caolin Blade runs in to congratulate Carty for that intercept try. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

His influence from general play has been exemplary but it’s Carty’s goal-kicking that has been particularly impressive. He’s currently second in the Pro14 kicking charts behind Sam Davies of Wales with 24 conversions and 16 penalties.

Carty has struggled to establish a consistent run of form in recent seasons and he was also struck down with a horrible injury in 2016 which ultimately ruled him out of Connacht’s matchday squad for their victorious day in the Pro12 final.

The then 24-year-old ruptured his spleen after a bizarre accident on a water slide in Dubai, losing 13kg of his body weight during a lengthy recovery.

But Carty has overcome those setbacks to deliver for the western province.

“He did very well and I’d say mentally, it was a big thing as well,”says Couper.

“Physically, it was obviously huge too but just to come back from such a big injury and it was ironic because he’s a fairly durable guy. He doesn’t get many injuries. To get one in such a way was a bit mad.

“He’s had a really good season this year and he’s kind of turned it around.

Speaking to the media last year, Carty offered an intriguing insight into his meticulous approach to goal-kicking. He talked about focusing on the shots that go wide over the ones that split the posts and teasing out ways to improve his form from the tee.

He even referred to the length of time he spends standing over each kick and how he tries to keep it at a consistent number of seconds.

Couper points to the assistance of Ireland kicking coach Richie Murphy as a key factor in Carty’s improvement in this area, while also mentioning the impact of Robbie Henshaw’s father Tony during Carty’s youth.

Robbie Henshaw along his mother Audrey and father Tony after Connacht’s Pro12 victory in 2016. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“The Sportsground is probably the hardest place in the world to kick with the wind and the rain and gaels,” Couper notes.

“Your percentages down there are never going to be as good as in the RDS.

“He’d be in Connacht development squads at 16 and he got a lot of help there. I suppose that was the making of him.

Both Carty and Henshaw were proficient in other sports when they were younger. They both played Gaelic football to inter-county minor level, with Jack representing Roscommon while Robbie wore the Westmeath jersey for a time.

Carty was a skillful footballer who lined out for Ireland at U15 and U16 levels and he also got an invitation from the Southampton club to go for trials.

But when the time came for them to focus on one sport, the Athlone pair chose to stick with the oval ball. That decision allowed them to make a huge contribution to rugby at the Marist College.

In addition to the Junior and Senior Cups that the boys delivered during their years of study at the school, Henshaw also became the first Marist student to earn an Irish Schools cap.

Henshaw celebrates with his Marist teammates after their Senior Cup success in 2012. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

All of those developments illustrate how far rugby in Leinster has expanded beyond the traditional areas in Dublin to become a mainstream sport in other counties.

“The two lads have paved the way,” explains Loftus, who teaches Irish and Geography at the Marist and would have taught both Carty and Henshaw.

“Everyone has a part in it, between the club Buccaneers where they started off and then they came in to us here.

“Going to other provinces, you’d be far away friends looking at them but now we’re there. 

“People associate the lads with coming from here and that’s huge because it puts our school name out there.

“It’s a big thing with intake, when young lads come in they want to be like the guys. That’s all positive.”

As the Six Nations draws closer, it’s difficult to predict how much game time Carty is likely to get. The current World Rugby Player of the Year Johnny Sexton has a tight grip of the number 10 jersey while Munster’s Joey Carbery is widely regarded as the back-up option.

But getting the nod ahead of Leinster’s Ross Byrne to make the squad in the first instance is a huge step achievement for Carty.

Henshaw — who missed part of Ireland’s journey to Grand Slam success last year due to a shoulder injury — is more likely to be included in Joe Schmidt’s starting line-up.

The 25-year-old was expected to miss the start of this year’s campaign with a hamstring injury but was back on the pitch for Leinster’s Champions Cup win over Wasps, a well-timed return as Ireland prepare for England’s visit to the Aviva Stadium next Saturday.

But regardless of what the 2019 Six Nations might bring, Carty and Henshaw’s friends in the Marist and Buccaneers are just thrilled to know they have two representatives in an Irish squad who never lost touch with their roots.

Henshaw (bottom left corner) and Carty (bottom right corner) never forgot where they came from. Source: Mick Loftus/Marist College

Similar to Henshaw coming to the Marist after the World Cup, Couper says that Carty is a regular face around the Buccaneers club, popping in to have lunch with his Dad Ted from time to time.

Wherever their rugby careers might take them, everyone at home knows they won’t forget the places that made them.

“It’s a pleasure for us to watch them, but the years go by very quickly. It’s been a great few years watching them in Connacht and Robbie going on to Leinster and the Ireland set-up and the Lions as well.

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