Years of sweat, sacrifice and reinvention go into Henry's overnight success at Ravenhill
Things are going well with Ulster and the flanker sees good times ahead with Ireland too, writes GERRY THORNLEY,Rugby Correspondent
For all the young tyros breaking through, there are also the Chris Henrys, Mike McCarthys and Donnacha Ryans. Late developers who are triumphant proof that if at first you don’t succeed, you just keep trying. At 28, Henry’s time has come.
Having re-invented himself two seasons ago as an openside flanker to become a vital cog in the Ulster machine, Henry was an ever-present in their march to last season’s Heineken Cup final and their Player of the Year. He also won his third and fourth caps back-to-back in the November Tests.
Like others of his ilk, he probably appreciates it all the more now. “I think like every professional rugby player, you are impatient. I’ve known Donnacha Ryan for a number of years and he’s a great example of it. We’ve played so many Irish A games together, and even plugging in the Ulster and Munster A teams, and it has been very frustrating at times but well the worth wait. Absolutely.”
Through it all, though he never doubted he would be a professional rugby player, there were times when he wondered if it would be with Ulster. “I was nearly away two or three years in a row. But because you had to work longer and harder for it I think that makes you less complacent, especially at the moment. The competition in this side is fairly fierce.”
For two years in succession, Henry seriously considered adding to the ex-Ulster conclave at the Exeter Chiefs but David Humphreys, especially, and Rory Best persuaded him to stay.
When injuries mounted again in 2008-09, Matt Williams gave him his chance. His debut came in the home Heineken Cup match against Harlequins.
“I remember being incredibly nervous. Nick Easter was their eight, and he was playing for England at the time. It was a horrible night, the game went so fast and I had to go off with a shoulder injury but we won and I was reasonably happy with how things went for me.”
In the last three and a bit seasons, he has played 80 times, all but nine starting, as Ulster ended a run of 12 pool exits to become Euro contenders.
“For the guys who have been here from the beginning, when times were tough, and now things are going well, I think it means more to them. There were real dark times up here, big time, when Matt left and Steve Williams came in.
“Rory got injured and Brian gave me the opportunity to captain the side and I completely felt out of my depth then. You were dealing with a team that weren’t winning and had a lot of big personalities still. It was daunting, but I definitely think I learned more in those hard years than I have in the last couple of years.”
In particularly he appreciated the need to “keep fighting” as the team began to eke out hard-earned wins, and to develop physically in the gym, before making the pivotal move to seven. “Looking at Ulster, with Stephen Ferris and Pedrie Wannennburg there, I was never going to get on the team at eight or six.”
McLaughlin, a breakdown specialist, was particularly helpful. En route to last season’s final, their defence was especially obdurate and here, Henry excels. He leads the line, often alongside Best, working in tandem to effect choke tackles or get over the ball and win penalties or slow the ball down.
Henry made three choke tackles to force turnovers last week in Franklin’s Gardens and made 18 tackles, none missed, while only giving away one penalty.
He showed good hands as first receiver in the passage which culminated in Tommy Bowe’s try, made the last carry for the recycle which led to Jared Payne’s try. He’s also a good line-out option and one of the team’s leaders.
With a degree in geography, he may teach and coach one day, but he hopes there’s plenty more years in his career yet. Rugby has always consumed him, ever since he began playing at five, just down the road from Ravenhill with Malone, where his late father Willie was a player and club president.
After Wallace High School and the Ulster and Ireland schools teams, through the Ulster academy and two years on a development contract, he also played AIL for a couple of seasons each with Malone and Ballymena.
The latter move to play off the back of a big pack, he says, was particularly useful, and he maintains that for a young forward being groomed in the AIL is imperative.
His older brother John played openside for Ulster schools (“He taught me the physical side of rugby, he used to beat me up in the garden”) and a younger brother, Daniel, is playing for Napier University in Edinburgh.
Willie Henry was also a seven, although sometimes Malone played him on the wing. Along with his mum Deniece, his dad always kept the faith. “He could see there was a spark for rugby in me and even in my medallion year (at 16) he thought there was a real opportunity for me.”
His dad would put the Dubbin on Henry’s boots the night before games, and never missed a game. Neither has his mum, thanks in part to a classy touch by the IRFU when Deniece was flown out for Henry’s Test debut against Australia in June 2010.
Willie Henry had passed away four weeks before, but although it was heartbreakingly poignant, making his Test debut was also “probably the best thing that could have happened, to get out of the country and put my head into something else.
“I think Declan (Kidney), without a doubt, couldn’t have been more supportive of me. He said: ‘Look, if you want to come, come; if you don’t I completely understand’. He said if I wanted my own room I could have it, which I didn’t take. I roomed with Eoin Reddan, which was great.
“I didn’t want to be by myself, and then he also had my mum flown out for that Test, as a surprise. I never expected that. To have her there was really special.
“Ach, I think that game just flew by. Was I totally ready for my first cap? No, but it was probably the best thing for me. My dad would have given anything to watch me, but unfortunately that can be life sometimes. You look at what happened with Nevin (Spence) this year and I suppose that puts it in perspective as well.”
Last month, Henry spent only one night of the Test window at home: “It was the most fun month of rugby ever, I think. I’ve never enjoyed being part of something more. I felt, with injuries to certain people, it was an opportunity for others to step up and to feel a real part of the team.”
He was particularly nervous for his first home Test, against South Africa, and his disappointment was all the more acute because “I felt we had them and couldn’t do it. But to finish off in the way we did with Argentina was so important and when everyone comes back in the new year I hope we built on what we have, and something special can be done. And I don’t see why not.”
But more immediate is Ulster. He preaches caution. Things are going well but they’ve won nothing yet: “And until you win something it doesn’t really matter. We haven’t achieved anything yet, and there’s a long, long way to go and I think as long as we don’t get complacent and keep that mentality, we can keep ourselves up there.
“You have to have a bit of luck with injuries and you have to have boys perform at the right times of the year. There are so many aspects, but we certainly are in a great place.”
Like Chris Henry himself.