This site uses cookies to improve your experience and to provide services and advertising. By continuing to browse, you agree to the use of cookies described in our Cookies Policy. You may change your settings at any time but this may impact on the functionality of the site. To learn more see our Cookies Policy.
Dublin: 10 °C Tuesday 22 October, 2019

'My wife was due three weeks later. I had to be able to drive her to hospital and hold my child'

Three months into retirement, Chris Henry sits down with The42 to reflect on his career with Ulster and Ireland.

Former International Chris Henry teams up with Volkswagen, a proud partner of Irish Rugby, ahead of Ireland vs France #ReadyForMore. Former Ireland and Ulster flanker Chris Henry. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

TWO DAYS INTO retirement, Chris Henry stood in the middle of Tesco. Suddenly it hit him. The finality of his decision, the dawning realisation that the very thing he identified himself as since leaving school was no longer what he could identify himself as.

No longer a rugby player, no longer Ulster’s number seven.

He stared into space, numbed. In the bread section, he recalls. Why there? Who knows, but this was it. Bereft, lost, scared. No longer the beginning of the end, but the end. 184 appearances for Ulster, 24 Ireland caps. The end of one chapter in Henry’s life and the start of the next. He needed that moment in Tesco. 

“It had all happened very quickly,” Henry tells The42. “I think 48 hours had passed since the announcement and I was sent out to the shops to pick up a loaf of bread. I just remember standing there. Staring. 

“I was overwhelmed. I left school and was straight into Ulster, it was something that consumed me for so long. It’s part of my identity and, just in that moment standing in the supermarket as a normal, everyday person doing an everyday task, all those feelings came down at me at once.

“I just stood there and thought ‘Oh my goodness, this is it.’ I knew the moment I sent that message into the group — ‘Guys, all the best for the rest of the season, keep in touch’ — that it was it. You exit the group and when you’re out, you’re out. 

“Luckily, I composed myself, got what I needed to get in Tesco and got out of there quickly.”

Retirement hits players in different ways. At different times, and in different forms. Although those early days were difficult — ‘it hit me like a ton of bricks’ — Henry found coping mechanisms. He was at peace with his decision because, truthfully, he had no other option.

His 184th and final appearance for his native Ulster was on the opening weekend of this season, as he came off the bench during the second half of the province’s Pro14 victory over Scarlets at Kingspan Stadium. He wasn’t to know at the time but a calf strain sustained at some point during that afternoon would force him into retirement just two months later.

Having come off a strong pre-season, Henry, at 34, remained determined to get back to full fitness. In a bid to regain his match sharpness, the flanker captained Ulster ‘A’ in their Celtic Cup opener against Leinster ‘A’ last September and then featured for his club, Malone RFC. He just needed minutes on the pitch.

“I was trying everything,” Henry remembers. “I played an ‘A’ game and the organisers, there were complaints about Ulster playing a 34-year-old in that competition. I agreed with them but I needed game time to actually get back to a bit of form. I tried every avenue.”

Ulster’s Chris Henry Henry played 184 times for his home province. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Henry got through 80 minutes unscathed for Malone but woke up the following morning in severe pain, unable to lift his arm. 

“I think that was the realisation,” he says. “I was in so much pain and I just couldn’t keep doing it, putting my body through it. Rugby had taken its toll on my body and I guess the writing was on the wall for me.”

The exact diagnosis was a rotator cuff tear and when a doctor initially recommended surgery, Henry knew enough was enough. He was out of contract in the summer, and there are only so many times a player can keep coming back, keep putting their body through the mill. 

“Ulster were making changes and bringing youth through. Of course, you want to be there forever, but I knew what Ulster were trying to do and I knew I wasn’t producing the standards I was used to. I just felt it was the right time to do it.  

“Truthfully, I wasn’t willing to move clubs to extend my career. I didn’t want to play for someone else. The scan actually showed I didn’t need surgery in the end but if I did, it wasn’t an option.

“The most important thing was my wife was due three weeks later, and the thought of not being able to drive her to the hospital or hold my child, I just thought about the bigger picture.

“It was just the right time to walk away before I hurt myself and I didn’t want to finish feeling bitter. I wanted to walk away with happy memories and thankfully I was able to take control of the situation.”

The formal announcement was made on 5 November 2018, Henry forced to call time on his career midway through what was his testimonial season at Ulster. Not how he would have wanted to go out, but the Belfast native’s perspective on rugby, and life, had changed irrevocably throughout a career defined by how he dealt with setbacks.

Just as he remembers those minutes standing in the bread section of his local Tesco and how he can now laugh and reflect on it as an important moment in transitioning from the old to the new, the morning of 8 November 2014 is forever etched in Henry’s mind.

“Yeah,” he smiles. 

Named to start in Ireland’s Autumn Test against South Africa at the Aviva Stadium, Henry had earned his opportunity alongside Peter O’Mahony and Jamie Heaslip in Joe Schmidt’s back row. 

“I felt amazing, it was a stage of my career when I felt I belonged. Sometimes when you’re not a guaranteed starter, you pull on that jersey and wonder ‘am I going to get caught out here?’ But at that stage, I felt I belonged. I deserved it, and then that happened.”

On the morning of the Test match, Henry — at 30 and in the prime of his rugby career — had a mini-stroke in his hotel room. He remembers going into the bathroom to splash water on his face, and then both his left arm and the left side of his face dropped and he lost all of his speech. It lasted four minutes.

Chris Henry The Belfast native won 24 international caps. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

His room-mate, Rhys Ruddock, scrambled for the assistance of the team doctor and although Henry’s strength returned after those four terrifying minutes, he was immediately taken to hospital, where he would spend the next four days.

Tests showed he had a hole in his heart, meaning the clot went into his heart instead of being cleared out through the lungs, before making its way up into the brain and resulting in a stroke. 

Incidentally, Ruddock was promoted off the bench into Henry’s number seven jersey for that game, the Leinster man producing a monumental performance in the circumstances, as Schmidt’s side recorded a memorable victory over the Springboks. But, sitting in hospital, rugby was secondary for Henry.

“Yeah, it wasn’t what I was thinking about,” he admits. “I remember watching the game in hospital and Rhys had a brilliant game that day but I was in such shock. It was a scary time. Would I speak properly again? Would I be able to drive again? Rugby really didn’t matter in those terrifying moments. 

“But I was lucky it happened under IRFU care, who have the best doctors and help. It was a massive blessing and somehow I was back playing rugby for Ulster four months later. I was very lucky.”

He made his return against Cardiff in March 2015.

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t completely terrified. Deep down, you know the doctor said you are fine, but until you go out there and put your head where it shouldn’t be, you don’t really know. 

I thought my career was over, that I’d never play again so to get the chance to pull on the jersey again and run out at Ravenhill, it meant a lot.

Through adversity, Henry found strength. It was a feature of his career, shaping him as a player and a person. Four weeks before his Ireland debut on the summer tour of Australia in 2010, his father, William, passed away after a short illness. That occasion was tinged with sadness and raw emotion.

The tragic passing of Ulster team-mate Nevin Spence in 2012 also had a profound effect on Henry, those experiences changing his outlook and perception. He appreciated rugby for what it was, and gave it his all, but never lost sight of what was truly important.

Even faced with the most difficult decision of his life, Henry knew he needed to be in a position to be there for his wife, Jade, as they prepared for the birth of their first child, a baby daughter who duly arrived last December. Little Willa Maria Henry. All of that was more important than trying to prolong his career. 

“Becoming a father does put everything in perspective,” he says. “It’s a game-changer. We got married and I knew I always wanted to have a family. It was good timing, I suppose.

“It’s a totally new chapter for me, it has been challenging but I’d like to think what I learned on a rugby pitch…my career wasn’t always plain sailing and I’ll use those learnings for this next chapter with my family.”

Between the birth of his daughter, a testimonial dinner to organise and continued charity work with Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke, Henry has barely had time to reflect on a career which started way back when in Malone RFC. From Wallace High School, to Queen’s University, to Ulster, to Ireland.

“I felt so lucky to play for my country,” Henry continues.

Rory Best and Chris Henry celebrate Celebrating Ireland's 2014 Six Nations with Rory Best in Paris. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Playing in the 2015 World Cup just six months after my health scare will always stay with me. I managed to sneak on the plane and that meant a lot because I was also on standby for the previous World Cup, in 2011, in New Zealand.”

Henry was one of the mainstays of the early years of Schmidt’s tenure and, before the mini-stroke on the eve of the Springboks Test, had firmly established himself as Ireland’s openside, starting all five games of the 2014 Six Nations success. 

“My best moment in green, without a doubt,” Henry states. “Playing away in France that night, winning in Paris. Just the best feeling in the world.”

Henry’s last appearance for Ireland was the infamous World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina in Cardiff, but his resilience meant he enjoyed three more years at the top with Ulster. 

A hard-working, brave and terrifically diligent pro with a strong ball-carrying ability and reputation for being a nuisance at the breakdown, Henry’s progression from the Malone minis to the international stage was not without its setbacks, but all of it — the highs, the lows, the good times, the bad times — meant he took absolutely nothing for granted and savoured every minute. 

“I’ve worn the number seven jersey for Ulster for a long, long time and it will take more time to get past it, but I feel pretty content at the moment. 

A lot of former team-mates and friends contacted me that first week and just said ‘there’s going to be good days, there are going to be bad days’ and knowing what’s coming helps. I’m just taking it one day at a time.

Henry’s hands are pretty full at home but he has ambitions of progressing his coaching career having helped Malone gain promotion to Division 1B of the Ulster Bank League last season. With a geography degree, there is also the option to go into teaching and it is something he is certainly not closing the door on yet.

“I’d love to get into coaching and take a few years and see where it gets me, but I don’t want to rush into something either. 

“I’ve a Whatsapp group with Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe and Paul Marshall called ‘gym’ but we don’t go to the gym together. The first thing I’d like to do is get back into a routine and we can go from there. It’s going to take time and I’m happy to take that.

There’s no rush with this next stage.

Life is now very different for Chris Henry, but that’s okay. It sits well with him.

“I had the best days of my life playing rugby,” he adds.

“I look back with such fondness. No regret, no bitterness. I wish I could play forever, and, yes, we have had plenty of challenges along the way. You think back to losing Nevin Spence, it hasn’t been smooth. But the highs have definitely outweighed the lows and, for me, I move on with such happy memories.”

Former International Chris Henry has teamed up with Volkswagen, a proud partner of Irish Rugby, ahead of Ireland vs France #ReadyForMore. Test your skills to win at Volkswagen’s Aviva Stadium fan zones this Sunday. For more information follow Volkswagen Ireland’s social channels.

Andy Dunne joins Murray Kinsella and Ryan Bailey to discuss Joe Schmidt’s undroppables and how France might attack Ireland’s predictability in The42 Rugby Weekly.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

Subscribe to our new podcast, The42 Rugby Weekly, here:

  • Share on Facebook
  • Email this article

About the author:

Ryan Bailey

Read next:


This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel