Chris Henry unlikely to be outflanked by responsibility of big assignment
Ulster backrow finally into double figures at the age of 29 but he hasn't peaked yet
Ireland’s Chris Henry in full flight against Scotland in last week’s RBS Six Nations Championship match at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
It almost does not tally with such a polite, pleasant and humble Ulster player but apart from being perhaps the biggest game of Chris Henry’s career, he also happens to be a key man. In the battle of the breakdown, his duel with Wales and Lions skipper Sam Warburton will go a long way to determine the outcome.
No pressure there then.
On the day we spoke in a quiet corner of the Conrad Hotel, the match was still four days away. But it was already looming large on Henry’s horizon. Warburton is back in the starting line-up and his mates bring considerable physicality and savvy to the collisions and breakdown. Moreover, they have Justin Tipuric to come off the bench of required.
“The biggest thing is that one person, often Dan Lydiate, chops the player low and the next person is on the ball so quickly,” says Henry. “It’s been addressed and talked about and now it’s about anticipating that happening, and making sure you get there and bring an edge to rucking out. Sometimes you can be very technical about rucking out, and sometimes you just need to smash something,” he reasons with a smile.
He knows it’s going to be a big step-up from last week. Restricted to two relatively light sessions this week, Henry admits the preparation has been as much mental.
“Wales have been very honest in their approach. They’re coming here to have a physical encounter and throw themselves at us. They’ll put the challenge down to us, and it’s up to us to match it and bring something of our own. I look around that circle of [Irish] players and believe we can bring a bit of an edge ourselves.”
‘I’m loving it’
Although 29, last week was his 10th Irish cap and his first Six Nations start.
“I mean . . . if you’d asked me three or four years ago ‘would you have got into double figures in caps?’ I probably would have laughed at you. Look at the competition. It’s a really exciting time for me and I’m loving it. On one side it’s amazing, on the other side there’s a lot of pressure. It’s intense and there are tough days, but it’s incredible. I’ve been in this set-up for a while now and I love working with Joe. At training today you look at the guys running for Wales, doing that dirty role and they’re class players. I thought the guys brought off the bench last week really finished off the game.”
Henry won his first cap at number eight in the summer of 2010 in the season-ending 22-15 defeat to Australia. And for two full years he feared he would be one of those one-cap wonders. Hence, as he admits himself, he wasn’t the unhappiest Irish man on the pitch after coming on for the last 25 minutes of Ireland’s 60-0 defeat to New Zealand.
He also knew he was a different player from the one who made his debut after Jamie Heaslip had been suspended for his red card against New Zealand. “Was I ready? Probably not. That was a month after my father passed away as well. So it was a bit of a crazy time.”
His father William had died from bowel cancer six weeks before that game in Brisbane. “Sadly he never got to see me play for Ireland but I was lucky that for the previous 25 years he was my biggest fan,” says Henry. His Dad is still with him in spirit, not least when Henry is lining up for the anthems.
“Last week, without a doubt, definitely he was the one I was thinking about. Who knows what happens in the afterlife but I felt he was close to me anyway. Standing there last week he was in my mind.”
A wee blonde prop at Malone mini-rugby, who gravitated towards number eight from school days at Wallace High School, in the years between his first and second cap, Henry had also reinvented himself as an openside flanker with the help of the then Ulster head coach Bryan McLaughlin.
“The bottom line was that I wasn’t tall enough to play six or eight, and seven was my position. I still think I’m learning. I haven’t reached my peak as a seven at all.”
He also reinvented his body. “I was always fit enough, but I don’t think I had that strength and power base . . . For me it . . . means ultimately when you do get your chances you try to enjoy it because you don’t know how long you’re going to be able to keep that shirt.”
Henry wasn’t always convinced he’d made it as a professional and so, after completing a geography degree at Queens while in the Ulster academy, he sought to emulate his father by doing his first air traffic control tests.
Within weeks, in January 2009, he made his debut for Ulster at home to Harlequins in the Heineken Cup and played every game that season. As the second air traffic control tests fell due within three months, his initial tests became void.
In the ensuing five and a bit years, he has played 113 times for Ulster. Luck, he freely admits, plays its part, along with injuries and coaches. Sean O’Brien’s misfortune could be his and he understands why O’Brien’s name repeatedly crops up. “He’s such a big character and he’s a big, big player. In that New Zealand game it was unbelievable the amount of carries he made, and I’m a big fan . . . but hopefully I’ve shown that I’m actually not a bad player and I can bring something maybe he can’t.”
Playing between the lines
“Going forward, Sean is a dynamic, crazy ball carrier. My thing would probably be more defensive and as a link player. I like to think I’ve good skills and link with a back line.”
To that end, Henry admits he was disappointed with himself for dropping that offload from Brian O’Driscoll in the first half against Scotland.
He’s also a big fan of O’Donnell, “a class player”, especially after the summer tour.
“I’d known Tommy for a lot of years but in that Canada game I went: ‘jeeze, this guy can really play’. Look it’s another one on the list.”
There’ll be a role for O’Donnell at some point too, but to begin with it will be Henry and Warburton who’ll be drawing the lines in the sand. While his brothers John and Daniel will watch on television in Barcelona and Edinburgh, his mum will be there as usual, as will his girlfriend Jade and her family, and “a good crew” of friends.
It should, he knows, be special. He’ll have his thoughts during the anthems and then it’ll be time to go into battle.