Iain Henderson fills Ireland’s leadership void as he fronts up to France defeat
Secondrow’s words carry weight as he rues missed chances in narrow Six Nations loss
Iain Henderson captained Ireland in their defeat to France. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
If France are a serrated carving knife then Ireland must be a fork. Or some other kitchen utensil. One you need every other day but nothing that will slice through the toughest meat. Not at the Principality in round one, and not at the Aviva in round two, as the unwanted tag of being the only Irish team to lose their opening Six Nations matches is their’s to always carry.
This tournament can sour on any nation. The wooden spoon needs breaking, fast.
“If you are not taking those opportunities at home you are not where you need to be to beat France,” said a bloodied Iain Henderson.
Take what you need from this game. The new captain produced a performance full of grit but lacking sufficient cutting edge. The Ulster lock’s lineout calling and stifling of the French set-piece - an achievement that ensured a two point deficit entering the final seconds - along with his unrelenting physicality should guarantee plenty of heartfelt message from his predecessors.
Busted open by a gruesome head clash with Cian Healy - perhaps caused by both men being forced to tackle lower, as they embraced Gregory Alldritt early in the second-half - he passed the Head Injury Assessments during and after this Test match with flying colours.
Missing almost 20 minutes of action due to a queue of brain injury applicants, behind Billy Burns (failed) and Healy (passed), Henderson returned to the fray with a red stained turban to take up where he left off.
“Yeah, I’m good. I have completed two HIAs so far and passed them both.”
One eagle-eyed tweeter compared him to Beric Dondarrion from Game of Thrones, but only after the seventh resurrection.
Henderson should be content with himself, not the result, nor Ireland’s failure to keep hold of possession when victory demanded a dagger’s sharpness, but the manner in which he proved his worth as a leader.
“France got their opportunities and took them,” he stated matter of factly.
They certainly did, with a try by Charles Ollivon - an epic tale that included cameos from the peerless Antonie Dupont, Matthieu Jalibert and the best supporting gong for Gael Fickou - that will stand beside anything Vincent Clerc or Oliver Magne has tortured Ireland with in bygone days.
“It was probably the reverse of last week actually,” said Henderson of Ireland losing 7-0 when Bernard la Roux was cooling off for a trip on Keith Earls. “We have to capitalise on their yellow card. Instead of letting them get points, we have to get points in that area, even if it’s a penalty. A try there could change the outcome of the game, how the second-half looks and it changes the way France play. Ultimately, it changes the whole game.
“When we have those opportunities, when we have an extra man on the pitch, we have to capitalise.”
Such honesty matters. Also, in days past, the captain or coach can come out and be all sulky about glaring deficiencies. Henderson’s words felt like a pressure valve being released.
Instead of offering “it is what it is” the 28-year-old leaned into positives and negatives from this one score defeat.
“We’re definitely seeing progress, everyone is striving for it, everyone is working really hard. There’s a huge amount of frustration. We’re definitely seeing guys put in the time, everyone is trying their best to produce this progress on the pitch but it’s that last couple of inches, that last week bit that we just need to push over the line.
“So we’re proud of the work the guys have been putting in and I’m looking forward to working together going forward to see that hard work coming together.”
Henderson was tasked with filling Paul O’Connell’s boots when the former captain’s hamstring snapped clean off the bone against France in 2015. A week later he was expected to lead a ravaged battalion over Argentina hill. It ended badly. Henderson looked like a follower. Now he is a captain in his prime and en-route to becoming a lineout technician with global status. You can see it happening. You hear him name checking all the other jumpers, injured or not, before O’Connell gets his due.
“Paulie has been huge for us, he’s an unbelievable driver in the lineout so it would be wrong to say he’s not had input there. He’s been class and the lads, definitely the forwards, are loving having him in. The details he brings and the passion, and obviously everyone looks up to Paulie, so his words carry a lot of weight and I think in the forward pack we can say we are seeing glimpses of it coming through.”
Now, everyone is starting to look up to Henderson.
“Ultimately, we’ve got three games left, our backs are against the wall. We have to pull out performances not just for the next game but the next three games.”
Henderson has been around a while now. You have seen and heard him, but not like this. There is weight to the words now. In defeat that matters.