Fierce competition for places helps drive on Iain Henderson
Ireland’s win over the All Blacks will give the squad a healthy internal rivalry boost
Ireland’s Bundee Aki and Ian Henderson celebrate at the final whistle Photograph: Gary Carr/INPHO
When the cameras panned in on Irish players such as Rory Best and Peter O’Mahony at the end of Saturday’s epic win over the All Blacks, there in the background were the players who were sharing 24th man duties, including Tadhg Beirne.
There’d been a minor clamour for his inclusion in the 23. But this is a hard Ireland squad to crack, as it should be. All of last Saturday’s match-day 23 are well versed in the ways of Joe Schmidt, Andy Farrell, et al. It’s where the exceptional cohesion comes from. Beirne’s time may well come, but everyone has to earn their time.
One of the many ripple effects from last Saturday is the degree to which it will further enhance the already healthy competition within the squad.
'We’re a lot more team-focussed, oriented on doing well for each other, which is probably something that has stood to us over the last number of seasons'
Beirne, and the rest of this month’s 43-man squad who were not involved last Saturday, will be even more motivated to be part of days like that.
Just take the secondrow. More than ever, James Ryan and Devin Toner are the men in possession, and come the Six Nations opener, Iain Henderson wants a starting place, while Beirne and Quinn Roux want to be at least part of that. Likewise everywhere else.
Noise and expectations
Henderson is in his seventh season as an Ireland squad member, and admits he’s never known such quality of competition. “Maybe in years gone by, especially when I was younger, if there were two or three big injuries, you may as well have written the result off at the weekend.
Whereas now, you see injuries, and you’re going ‘flip that means he’s going to get an opportunity.’ And then people are genuinely excited about someone else playing rather than being disappointed about someone being injured, which I think is incredible.”
By comparison, all the outside noise and expectations are just that.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re extremely comfortable with everyone thinking this, that or the other. I would say we’re a lot more team-focussed, oriented on doing well for each other, which is probably something that has stood to us over the last number of seasons.”
For some of last Saturday’s match-day 23 it was a chance to beat the All Blacks for the first time on Irish soil. For others, it was also an opportunity to beat the All Blacks for the first time ever.
'Having all the fan base behind you was incredible. The buzz in the general area before the game'
Soldier Field came a fortnight too early for Henderson, who was hamstrung, and so he watched that game for his sofa at home in Belfast, before he appeared off the bench in the defeat at the Aviva Stadium two weeks later.
“Opportunities to play them do not come around that often – never mind opportunities to beat them. And that was something everyone at the weekend wanted to grab and hold onto, even going back to 2013.”
“Everyone wants a shot at the title holder, and they are obviously the best team in world rugby, so everyone is delighted to get the opportunity to play them.”
Henderson, who was in the stands for the first hour before then being part of the last quarter and that spine-tingling endgame, admitted he’s never known an atmosphere like it.
“It was definitely way, way up there. I felt it and I was able to experience it without having to worry too much about the game whenever I was on the bench. It was a phenomenal atmosphere without ever having to get onto the pitch.”
“Having all the fan base behind you was incredible. The buzz in the general area before the game. Once you get the bus there, you could feel the atmosphere building, not only in the team hotel but lining the streets, driving to the Aviva Stadium and outside the Aviva, with the drums, it was just kind of all building. Then to come out for the haka as well, it was phenomenal.”
The match itself actually lived up to the hype, the only unsavoury note to an otherwise compelling week being the comment by All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster with regard to Bundee Aki.
“He looks like an Irishman now, doesn’t he?” ventured Foster, which was compounded by the New Zealand Herald calling Aki a “backstabber”.
Describing his admiration for the way Aki has written “a new chapter” in his life, Henderson said: “To call him a backstabber that’s probably a bit sly, if I’m being honest. I feel the amount of work he has put in, in Connacht and in Ireland, I think he’s completely justified to be wearing the green jersey, and the amount he’s given to it. It’s the same in training. He’s an excellent lad about the place too and just adds to the whole ethos of the place.”
It’s the competition within that also adds to the intrigue next Saturday against the US Eagles. In Carton House, attention has already switched.
“We have already had a look at their lineouts this morning,” said Henderson. “I was in analysing a few of their games. They have played 10 this year and only lost one I think. They have been putting immense pressure on every one they have played.”
Admitting there’s a risk of riding on the high of last week, Henderson added that pending today’s review: “I am sure that will all be knocked out of us probably when Joe gets a hold of the presentations and it will be back to business.”
“The team hasn’t been named up as yet or anything but they will be looking to take the bull by the horns, to really give it a rattle this weekend, not just to produce a performance after last weekend but to continue on from last weekend.”