Positive news for Ulster as Best and Henderson sign new deals
Leinster’s Rob Kearney signs contract extension with IRFU that runs to Nov, 2019
Iain Henderson: has signed a contract extension which will see him continue to play his rugby for Ulster and Ireland until at least June 2021. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
If any province needed a sliver of upbeat news it arrived for Ulster yesterday when Rory Best and Iain Henderson signed new contracts. It binds the two captains to the province until the end of Best’s career and until Henderson is 29-years-old.
Henderson’s signature also saves the IRFU from having to ‘pull a Simon Zebo’ on his Ireland selection had he decided to follow money and a lifestyle outside of Belfast as Zebo has done.
The ruthless axing of the Munster fullback was not a popular move from a public point of view. But with Kearney also signing with the two Ulster players the union have hammered home their point about keeping players from leaving.
Clearly all three have ambitions to travel to the next rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019 and the country being currently ranked at two in the world makes that trip more attractive for the Irish team and players than it has ever been.
Given the age profiles of Best and Kearney there will be challenges. The encouraging thing is that it shows how alive their personal drive and ambition is to be part of what could be a unique tournament for Ireland.
They also understand that Schmidt, far from making it easier for them, will ensure the next 18 months are intensely competitive.
Ireland captain Rory Best has signed an IRFU contract extension to run until the end of the 2019 Rugby World Cup with Kearney doing the same with a contract extension that runs through to November 2019.
The Leinster fullback will be 32-years-old in five days’ time with hooker Best 36-years-old in August.
Henderson, who turned 26 in February, has signed a contract extension, which will see him continue to play his rugby for Ulster and Ireland until at least June 2021.
Henderson’s signature is particularly welcome and talks had been ongoing since December. There were clearly hurdles to be cleared with the IRFU as the negotiations took place to the back drop of probably the most miserable season Ulster have ever had – on and off the pitch.
No longer in the Champions Cup, treading water in the Pro14 and most critically not consistently looking like a winning side has been their lot all season.
It would be easy to believe Henderson’s negotiators played hardball with Ulster around the issues of making the province competitive again and building an Academy to rival that at Leinster.
Lasting success There is always a point reached where things have to change and Henderson’s signature might just be that point for Ulster. He didn’t shirk away from alluding to the problems he sees and is ready to become an instrument of change for the province.
“I have been able to develop in an environment that has seen both provincial and national teams being part of some fantastic days and indeed some challenging times over the past seasons,” said Henderson.
“I am extremely confident that, with both Ulster and Ireland, we will continue to meet those challenges head on. It is my ambition to continue to push for further honours at both provincial and national levels. As a proud Ulster man, I have always stated my desire to help Ulster secure lasting success and a legacy that mirrors that of our neighbouring provinces.”
Henderson played in four of Ireland’s games during this season’s Six Nations Grand Slam success and has earned 38 caps since his debut against South Africa in November 2012. He also featured prominently in the Six Nations Championship successes in 2014 and 2015.
Kearney made his debut for Ireland over 10 years ago and has won 83 caps. Twice a Lions tourist (2009 and 2013) he played in all three Tests on the South Africa tour.
“There have been some fantastic days for both Ireland and Leinster over the course of my career,” said Kearney.
“There is huge potential for growth in both squads as we look to build and develop and challenge.”
Under the stewardship of Best, who is Ireland’s third most decorated player with 111 caps, Ireland recorded their first win over the Springboks on South African soil as well as recording a first ever victory over New Zealand in Chicago in November 2016.
“Rory will go down as one of the most successful Ireland captains in history,” said Bryn Cunningham, operations director at Ulster.
“To have that sort of leadership and experience in our squad, both on and off the pitch, is critical. We are a squad in transition and Rory will provide that stability and assuredness.”