Born leader Iain Henderson eager to embrace responsibilities
Momentous times for Ulster lock as he captains Ireland and signs new two-year contract
Iain Henderson: will be hoping to overcome disappointment of defeat to France by helping Ireland to victory in Rome. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA
There was a time when an entire Leinster backline on the Ireland team sheet would be laughed out of the smoke-filled committee room on Lansdowne Road.
This has only happened on two other occasions. The others, according to rugby statistician Stuart Farmer, being in 1912 against South Africa and Wales in 1931 (Ireland lost these fixtures by a combined total of 50 points).
Still, a few Maori tribes, not to mention Marist College, Athlone could legitimately question the purity of these Leinster three quarters.
Professionalism ensured that James Lowe, Jamison Gibson-Park and Robbie Henshaw made their way to Dublin to further their careers. The proof of this is the trio’s inclusion in an all-Leinster backline to face Italy in Rome tomorrow.
Munster and Ulster, in bygone days, would have plenty of gripes about Dave Kilcoyne and Iain Henderson being their only home-grown representatives in Andy Farrell’s starting XV.
Luckily for the Englishman, professionalism has all but strangled the life out of the tit for tat debate that pursued every Ireland coach before Farrell’s predecessor.
Unfortunately, professionalism during the pandemic has equally served to slow the contract negotiations of the IRFU’s prized assets to a snail’s pace.
Johnny Sexton is about to ink a one-year deal – and perhaps not a penny more as multi-layered talks continue behind closed doors – while Iain Henderson sounded relieved to announce his two-year extension to stay in Ulster with a contract “wholly funded” by central office.
At 29 and having just captained his country for the first time, Henderson should be in the strongest possible negotiating position but no athlete is safe in the current financial meltdown. The three-year deal he presumably wished for has evaded the big lock.
“Look, it has been a long process and I’m delighted to get to the end of it,” said Henderson ahead of reuniting at secondrow with fellow Irish skipper James Ryan. “I don’t have to worry about that, for a week or so, I was kind of able to check that box off my list.”
Plenty of his team-mates are still stewing. The point of creating a streamlined, centrally controlled system under performance director David Nucifora was to avoid talks with agents spilling into the Six Nations. The contracts had begun to get sorted by Christmas. Like so many accepted norms, such latitude no longer exists.
“I would say the initial period was probably more stressful,” said Henderson of the salary cuts players were forced to swallow last year.
“Speaking generally as the wider group, contract negotiations were maybe later than we would have initially anticipated or the way they would be in a usual year. That was probably something that anyone in any profession would find stressful, pushing out their security going forward.
“When they got underway, the discussions that we had with my agent and David Nucifora and other members of his team, they weren’t painful at all. They were understanding and I think, from both sides of the table, we knew where we had to get to and it didn’t think anywhere near as long as probably I thought it would.”
Henderson sounds like a leader. He’s certainly playing like one. If he stays fit – which is a big presumption – a natural progression into the Ireland captaincy might allow Sexton and Ryan to focus on being the dominant performers in Test matches.
Either way, Henderson knows as much as anyone how fickle this game can be and appears to be embracing the responsibility of a genuine leader of a group that has yet to find its voice.
“If anyone has any external stresses, be it contract or be it family or college or anything else, I think you always have to be mindful of your team-mates to make sure that you have that extra eye outside of the rugby circle because ultimately that will impact their rugby performance, be it training or matches or sleep before a game or anything like that.
“I think being able to spot guys when they are maybe struggling a wee bit or maybe they are not themselves, that’s key. Andy Farrell is good at picking up when guys aren’t feeling great and checking in on them. It’s something that this whole group are pretty good at.”
Now all they have to do is win.