Iain Henderson plotting a late run into Six Nations contention
Ulster forward impressed in return game against Leicester
Ulster forward Iain Henderson is hoping to play for the Wolfhounds against the England Saxons and force himself into the Ireland Six Nations squad. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Iain Henderson’s all-encompassing performance for 58 minutes of Ulster’s victory over the Leicester Tigers in their Champions Cup pool encounter last Saturday night broached a premium grade measurement in quality terms.
When evaluated in the context of not having played a competitive match since June 14th, 2014, due to a hip labral tear, some bone shaving in the joint and a subsequent hamstring issue that flared during his rehabilitation period, it was a jaw-dropping effort.
Watching the manner in which he bestrode the Ravenhill pitch, demonstrating his natural athleticism at blindside flanker, carrying, clearing out and supporting to tremendous effect, de-clawing a Tiger or two in the tackle, it beggared belief that this was a first outing in a fortnight over seven months.
Henderson offered a more modest appraisal of his efforts: “In the past, I have found it takes me a while to get the ball rolling (in terms of taking a few games to get up to speed). However given it’s so close to the Six Nations I can’t really afford that.
“I thought I didn’t go too badly against Leicester, played about 60 minutes and I’d like to pick it up again with the Wolfhounds and try to maximise my performance and my potential for this weekend.
“If you are stuck in a gym with Kevin Geary (Ulster’s Strength & Conditioning coach) for seven months, pretty much on end, you will do anything to get back out there. I was looking forward to contact tackling, getting stuck in, getting the white jersey back on again and it was absolutely brilliant.
“I loved playing with the boys again and it was just good that we could go out and front up and show what Ulster really are capable of doing.”
It was all rugby rehab though for Henderson and his fellow gym buddy, Andrew Trimble. The two decided to pursue a course in motor mechanics.
Henderson laughed: “With the assistance of our tutor we replaced a clutch in my classic mini. The fingers are just about getting right. We enjoyed it and it was something that got us away from spending hours on end in the gym.”
Sporting shoulder length locks similar to French tennis player Henri Leconte in his pomp, the young Ulsterman’s grizzled look is completed by a beard, given him the appearance of a 18th century corsair that sits easily in image terms with the manner in which he plays the sport.
On Friday he’s likely to be part of the Wolfhounds squad that takes on the Saxons, a familiar proposition as he’s lined out in this fixture for the past two years and employed it to catapult his way into the senior Ireland squad for the ensuing Six Nations.
“Wolfhounds games are always an opportunity. I’ve played in them the last couple of years and ended up in the squad the last couple of years. For me, that shows me this is a game where if people take their opportunity, they get their reward from it.
“There is no reason why the rest of the players shouldn’t think that if they’re playing in this game there is a potential place for them in the Six Nations squad. I know Joe (Schmidt) trusted me last year and the year before I was involved a bit as well.
“It is good to know coaches have backed you before so it gives you a bit of confidence going into these games, like Leicester at the weekend there, and the Wolfhounds pending selection this weekend.
“I can go into these games with confidence, knowing I’m not just playing for nothing, I’m playing for a potential place (in the senior squad) at the end of the day.
“A lot of the boys take a lot of confidence that they’re down here (Carton House), running the plays for the Six Nations, knowing that they have to know their details. They realise that if you are down here at this stage, everyone is in contention; everyone is no more than maximum one or two injuries away from having a spot in the Six Nations squad.”
Henderson name-checked several players who have graduated from the Wolfhounds games over the past couple of seasons to feature in the Six Nations, adding, “maybe not for the first game or second game but maybe a few games into the campaign when a few injuries start coming through.”
First though there is the small matter of getting selected and then facing a strong Saxons squad in Cork. He elaborated: “(Chris) Ashton is in the team and your man (Sam) Burgess is in there; Thomas Waldrom (is) in the pack. They have put out a good team.
“They had a decent enough team last year as well however we did a job over there in Gloucester last year, over in Kingsholm, however this year, it seems like a strong team but there is no reason why we can’t put out a decent team with the squad we have down here at the minute and then following that there is no reason why we can’t get the result.”
So what about facing Burgess? “Obviously there is a lot of chat going around about him. He’s a big guy, big ball carrier but there is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to quieten him down and try and put him in his place.”