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Henderson: O'Connell 're-coaching the small things that everyone, in inverted commas, 'already knows''

The Ulster captain saluted the coaches behind Ireland’s improved set piece, which has been a rare bright spark in a poor Six Nations to date.

Iain Henderson with Ireland forwards coach Paul O'Connell.
Iain Henderson with Ireland forwards coach Paul O'Connell.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

PERHAPS HIS CREDENTIALS as a future national-team captain, accentuated during two standout individual performances in Ireland’s hours of need versus both Wales and France, smoothed the talks.

But despite the pandemic-delayed and generally protracted process this time around, the final negotiations were fairly painless as Iain Henderson signed a new two-year IRFU contract which will take him to the eve of the 2023 World Cup. And he’s forthright in his intention to extend again at that point.

He was finally able to “check that box” about a week ago, securing his immediate future and officially announcing as much today with a sense of understandable relief. He discusses the negotiation process and how players’ reputed flirtation with foreign clubs is often part of it, but less so here, as far as he can see. “I’ve only ever had eyes for Ireland,” he says, in a loving tone that takes the mick out of himself and masks the fact that he’s likely being serious.

And then, more seriously, he speaks to team-mates who don’t yet have the luxury of looking even a couple of years ahead, as negotiations continue into the spring for numerous players who, as it stands, will be out of contract this summer.

“In terms of looking out for each other, making sure everyone is fine; [checking] if anyone has any external stresses, be it contracts or college or family; you always have to be mindful of your team-mates and make sure that you have that extra eye outside of the rugby circle.

“Ultimately, [such stresses] will impact their rugby performances, be it training or matches or sleep before a game or anything like that. Being able to spot guys when they’re maybe struggling a wee bit, or they’re not themselves, that’s key.”

Strictly within a rugby context, Paul O’Connell would doubtless have seen a number of players in his old wheelhouse struggling upon his introduction to Andy Farrell’s setup in advance of the Six Nations.

Even in two defeats, his impact on Ireland’s forwards has been marked, and most exemplified at lineout time.

The scrum, too, looks extremely well oiled under John Fogarty, with Ireland’s set piece as a whole exempt from much of the skepticism facing the team and Farrell’s reign as his third international window teeters on the brink of disaster.

Henderson, though, speaks not of a forwards revolution under the tutelage of either O’Connell nor Fogarty, but instead of pragmatic solutions that have thus far afforded Ireland to steady the ship up front at the very least.

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“Paulie hasn’t come in and tried to reinvent anything,” he says of O’Connell. “He hasn’t tried to take everything away from what we had learned before.

“What he has done is let us continue to work with what we were doing, and add small tweaks to make us better and better, session by session; adding bits of detail that we might be missing, ensuring that we are getting as consistent a lineout as possible for the hookers, the jumpers, and the lifters, to make sure that, ultimately, we can have as smooth a week running into the game as possible.

“The detail that Paulie’s adding at the lineout: it’s nothing mind-blowingly new. It’s the ability to be able to continue to coach and to re-coach the small things that everyone, in inverted commas, ‘already knows’, and to ensure we’re staying on top of that,” he adds.

“Fogs (Fogarty) has been incredible with the insight he’s brought to the scrum and, again, he’s making the scrum feel not only about the front row, but the eight players that are in the scrum.

“Because very often, what can happen in scrum meetings is that front rows just sit and talk in more or less another language than everyone else and, as second rows, we just stick our heads in and push! Whereas Fogs has brought a whole new dimension to it and is really encapsulating ‘the eight as one’, as he likes to put it, to ensure we’re getting those performances throughout the week, building towards the weekend, the same as the lineout.”

As for his own taste of formally driving on-field standards as captain against France, Henderson says he’d “love to do it again” but doesn’t expect he’ll officially lead Ireland against Italy in Rome this weekend.

“I really enjoyed it. Obviously, the result wasn’t what we had wanted but I really enjoyed the build-up to it and during the game.

“Obviously, there is a pecking order of leaders ahead of me. This team has leaders all the way through it and that’s probably one thing that made it feel more seamless for me and made it more easy for me to step into that role.”

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