'I had an elbow in the throat when I was tackling - I lost my voice straight away'

Ulster’s Chris Henry looks forward to his side’s Champions Cup clash with La Rochelle on Sunday.

Chris Henry Ulster's Chris Henry. Source: Presseye/Stephen Hamilton/INPHO

NAME THE LAST time you heard of a rugby player missing a game with a larynx injury.

It’s a point not lost on Ulster flanker Chris Henry, who actually laughs when asked about the blow against Connacht that actually ruled him out of last week’s win over Wasps.

It was a freak incident, with no malice or intent behind it, but it was still enough to ensure the former Wallace High man was left speechless afterwards – quite literally.

“I just had an elbow in the throat when I was tackling, these things happen in a match but it was very painful at the time, I lost my voice straight away so it was hard to communicate with the referee,” he explains with a rueful smile.

“After getting scans there was far too much swelling and they didn’t want to take the risk (against Wasps) in case I got another knock. With a week’s rest my voice has come back – it’s still a bit raspy but a lot better that it was.

I couldn’t really sleep on the Friday night at all and then by last Thursday or Friday I started to make big improvements and I could tell the swelling had gone down.”

Injury update out of the way, the 33-year old will return to Ulster’s starting line-up tomorrow, it’s time to turn our attentions to the actual rugby and Ulster’s second foray into European rugby this weekend.

Jacob Stockdale and Stuart McCloskey celebrate after the game Jacob Stockdale and Stuart McCloskey celebrate Ulster's victory against Wasps. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

After that 19-9 win over a heavily depleted and morale devoid Wasps side, Ulster make the journey to the sunny west coast of France to take on the giants of La Rochelle, last season’s Top14 regular season table toppers.

As always tends to be the case in Europe, it’s just one big game after another, and Les Kiss’ team selection suggests he has elected to prioritise next week’s interpro with Leinster instead of this game.

With La Rochelle’s fearsome home record, and looking in exceptional form after their 34-27 win over Harlequins, Kiss has elected to rotate some of his big name stars with the focus clearly on picking up away wins in London and Coventry.

In-form winger Jacob Stockdale is on the bench, as is first choice scrum-half John Cooney, while captain Rory Best is also named among the replacements despite fully recovering from a hamstring injury.

A slightly depleted side doesn’t concern Henry, however, who praises the togetherness of this squad compared to previous seasons.

“It’s taken time,” Henry says in reference to the team spirit.

It hasn’t happened overnight. You think back to the pre-season friendlies, the ups and downs, the really good performances.

“For me, the positive is that I think we have a great team morale. It’s hard to bottle that. The boys are enjoying training, the craic is brilliant. The boys that don’t get selected, they’ve really bought into it. If we train well, we prepare well, then we play well.

Andrew Brace alongside as John Muldoon and Chris Henry exchange words Henry in action against Connacht's John Muldoon earlier this month. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“That’s why this team culture is so important. If you get bad news that you’re not involved, because the coaches have rotated, you know that you’re going to get a go. It might be three weeks down the line, it might be an A game but you’ll get your chance.

“That makes a big difference in regards to the positivity that the players bring in training and around the camp.”

And that was no more evident than last week against Wasps, says stand-in captain Henry who has filled in while Best has been sidelined to start the year.

This is what it’s all about, your back is against the wall and you’re playing against the best opposition, the biggest thing for me is it’s been a long time since this Ulster team has been as tight,” he reveals.

“We are building a really good team culture and team structure. It’s never going to be perfect, but you know the person beside you is working hard and going to cover your butt if you make a mistake and I think that is where we are.

“Against Wasps sitting up there watching it, it was the first game I really felt that our attack wasn’t anywhere near where it has been, our shape we got lost and at times we really didn’t know where we were but the most pleasing thing was our defence.

We were connecting more and we were more unified as a group and we worked really hard for each other and made good decisions at the breakdown.”

That positivity has, for the most part, transferred itself into results on the pitch. Besides a shock defeat in Parma to Italian side Zebre, Ulster have started the season strongly under their new coaching set-up.

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Chris Henry and Niell Jordaan Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Not only that, according to Henry, but there is a new confidence around the team that they will take into the cauldron of noise that is the Stade Marcel-Deflandre on Sunday, which will be hosting its first ever Champions Cup match.

In years gone by Ulster might have struggled in France, but now they know how to succeed on their travels having picked up wins at Castres, Montpellier and Toulouse.

That experience will serve the Ulstermen well, but Henry believes the atmosphere inside La Rochelle’s 16,000 capacity ampitheatre will be something they can’t prepare for.

The fact we have won on French soil is brilliant but La Rochelle are a side that have built this up for a long time, and what a journey they have had,” the Lisburn man praised.

“We know they are going to be bouncing off the walls on Sunday and we need to come and try to match that the best we can.

“They have home advantage and we know what it is like to play against big French teams. I’ve never played La Rochelle but I’m guessing it is going to be a similar atmosphere to Clermont where the fans don’t stop and with the noise you can’t even hear your own call.

“We have to be really focused and clear in our game plan but obviously bring the passion and ferocity that they are going to bring, and if we can weather that storm and get parity in certain areas we’re confident when we get going and firing we can challenge any team.”

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