Versatile Henderson getting the chance to impress
The progressive Ulster forward has a bright international future, writes GAVIN CUMMISKEY
Back in the summer when Ireland out-grappled South Africa during the opening match of the IRB Under-20 World Cup, in Stellenbosch no less, one man towered above the rest.
Sure, there was a quartet of Leinster forwards who also contributed enormously and may in time climb up their steep pecking order – but none of them will be on view in Ravenhill this Friday night.
None of them have been trusted, on return to their province, to play any higher than A standard.
Granted, the Irish under-20 halfbacks – Munster’s JJ Hanrahan and particularly Connacht’s Kieran Marmion – have pushed on in the professional game but the immediate leap from showing real potential at underage to stand out performances in the Heineken Cup is a rarity in Irish rugby.
Brian O’Driscoll went from being an impressive under-19 centre in 1998 to threatening the feared midfield partnership of Tim Horan and Daniel Herbert in the summer of 1999.
But the fast-tracking of Iain Henderson has been rapid. Undoubtedly assisted by injury to established blindsides and locks, it was still a huge call by Declan Kidney, backed by Gert Smal, to promote the 6ft 5½in 20-year-old to the senior squad in November.
And then they capped him as a blindside replacement against the actual Springboks. Due to more injuries, he ended up at openside against Fiji.
Donncha O’Callaghan insisted on name-checking him for a muscular steal on Ireland’s line as they struggled to keep the visitors at nil.
“It’s been absolutely brilliant. I’ve just been trying to take it in my stride but I’m absolutely loving it so no worries yet. It helps having the standard of player I have alongside me.
“National camp was amazing but I am still learning, still taking it all in.”
He must have been surprised to be called down to Carton House last month?
“When they spoke to me they said they would give me a shot because they thought I had earned it. I was a bit shocked to begin with but once I got there it was just about knuckling down to work.”
With Stephen Ferris recuperating from his latest surgery on ruptured ankle ligaments, it looked like Ulster coach Mark Anscombe would keep him at six – where he earned an Ulster Schools Cup with Belfast Royal Academy in 2009.
But his versatility will most likely mean he is shifted.
The Ulster under-20s turned him into a lock last season and Ireland coach Mike Ruddock liked the idea as well. Ireland have never struggled to produce backrowers. Ruddock had the aforementioned Leinster trio of Jack Conan (recently impressing for Old Belvedere) and the Clongowes Wood duo Conor Gilsenan (injured last summer in South Africa) and Jordan Coughlan (since converted to inside centre).
There is a bit of Mal O’Kelly to Henderson’s physique and he has similar agility, if not height, so his future may lie in the second row.
With Dan Tuohy joining Johann Muller and Lewis Stevenson in the infirmary, suddenly, the kid must start to lead. Neil McComb will probably come in alongside him, with Robbie Diack covering. But between himself and Rory Best the lineout will need to be called.
“I’m tall enough to play there. I’m happy enough to stand at four or six in the lineout. We have enough strength in depth not to be worried about the lineout.”
A good example of learning on the job has been the impressive improvement of Donnacha Ryan ever since Paul O’Connell was laid low last spring.
“Obviously there are better lineout operators than me in the Ulster squad and I’m still learning from them.”
He notes the recent back-to-back meetings with Northampton as the toughest challenges he has faced: “Certainly, in terms of sheer physicality.”
A few essential kilos will be added to his frame over the coming seasons, but he relishes this physicality and has survived some massive collisions.
The latest duel with Leo Cullen should be an ideal lesson in the technical aspects of the position.
“I’ve never played Leinster before,” he says, an immediate reminder of his age.
He wasn’t involved in the Heineken Cup final at Twickenham last May. Ulster have certainly moved on since. So, more than anyone, has Henderson.