Years of sweat, sacrifice and reinvention go into Henry's overnight success at Ravenhill
In particularly he appreciated the need to “keep fighting” as the team began to eke out hard-earned wins, and to develop physically in the gym, before making the pivotal move to seven. “Looking at Ulster, with Stephen Ferris and Pedrie Wannennburg there, I was never going to get on the team at eight or six.”
McLaughlin, a breakdown specialist, was particularly helpful. En route to last season’s final, their defence was especially obdurate and here, Henry excels. He leads the line, often alongside Best, working in tandem to effect choke tackles or get over the ball and win penalties or slow the ball down.
Henry made three choke tackles to force turnovers last week in Franklin’s Gardens and made 18 tackles, none missed, while only giving away one penalty.
He showed good hands as first receiver in the passage which culminated in Tommy Bowe’s try, made the last carry for the recycle which led to Jared Payne’s try. He’s also a good line-out option and one of the team’s leaders.
With a degree in geography, he may teach and coach one day, but he hopes there’s plenty more years in his career yet. Rugby has always consumed him, ever since he began playing at five, just down the road from Ravenhill with Malone, where his late father Willie was a player and club president.
After Wallace High School and the Ulster and Ireland schools teams, through the Ulster academy and two years on a development contract, he also played AIL for a couple of seasons each with Malone and Ballymena.
The latter move to play off the back of a big pack, he says, was particularly useful, and he maintains that for a young forward being groomed in the AIL is imperative.
His older brother John played openside for Ulster schools (“He taught me the physical side of rugby, he used to beat me up in the garden”) and a younger brother, Daniel, is playing for Napier University in Edinburgh.
Willie Henry was also a seven, although sometimes Malone played him on the wing. Along with his mum Deniece, his dad always kept the faith. “He could see there was a spark for rugby in me and even in my medallion year (at 16) he thought there was a real opportunity for me.”
His dad would put the Dubbin on Henry’s boots the night before games, and never missed a game. Neither has his mum, thanks in part to a classy touch by the IRFU when Deniece was flown out for Henry’s Test debut against Australia in June 2010.
Willie Henry had passed away four weeks before, but although it was heartbreakingly poignant, making his Test debut was also “probably the best thing that could have happened, to get out of the country and put my head into something else.