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'It would be the highlight of our careers if we were able to do something special this year'

Iain Henderson has a burning desire to finally get over the line with Ulster.

Eyeing silverware: Iain Henderson.
Eyeing silverware: Iain Henderson.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

SINCE FIRST MAKING his senior international bow in November 2012, Iain Henderson has grown accustomed to lifting silverware in the green of Ireland.

A three-time winner of the Six Nations – including the Grand Slam triumph of 2018 – the Ulster lock also helped his country to secure a Triple Crown at the end of this year’s Championship. Success has eluded Henderson thus far at club level, however, with the most recent entry on Ulster’s roll of honours being a Celtic League title back in 2006.

The Craigavon man was just 14 years of age when Mark McCall guided the northern province to glory in the same season that Munster claimed the Heineken Cup for the first time.

Having featured in the Pro12 and Pro14 finals of 2012/13 and 2019/20 respectively, Henderson understandably has a burning desire to finally get over the line with Ulster. A United Rugby Championship quarter-final against the aforementioned Munster in Belfast tomorrow week represents the next step on the road to potentially achieving this goal in the current campaign, something he believes would be career-defining for himself.

“Obviously it would be incredible to see us winning something. A lot of that for me would be to see the younger guys winning something. They’ve put in so much over the last few years and, seeing them progressing, it would be great to get them into a winning habit or winning mentality,” Henderson acknowledged.

“It would be great to have the guys who were born – frustratingly for us! – after the millennium to be able to be winning stuff. To set them off at the start of their careers on a streak of winning trophies would be phenomenal.

“For us lads, it would be something that we’ve been working towards and aspiring towards for a long time. Not through lack of trying, but a few very frustrating games, frustrating knockout matches. It would be phenomenal, it would definitely be the highlight of our careers if we were able to do something special this year.”

While defeating Munster – who are without a trophy themselves since 2011 – is well within their grasp, it is quite likely Ulster will also have to overcome Leinster in order to bag the inaugural URC crown. Leo Cullen’s men were the standard bearers under the competition’s previous guise as the Pro14, winning no fewer than four league titles on the bounce.

This weekend sees them chasing a fifth European star against La Rochelle in the Champions Cup decider at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille, before resuming their URC campaign with a last-eight meeting at home to Glasgow Warriors in the RDS on Saturday week.

The strength of the Leinster squad is reflected in the fact that a second-string selection were able to secure a bonus-point victory over Munster at the Aviva Stadium five days ago, despite their opponents needing a win to avoid hitting the road in the knockout rounds. Of all the qualities that Ulster’s interprovincial rivals possess, it is the cohesion in their play – regardless of the personnel involved – that impresses Henderson the most.

“Whenever they have a team out, irrespective of who is playing, one thing that is always very impressive is that you could almost recognise they are Leinster without knowing who’s playing. The way Leinster play, their shape is very impressive. How well drilled it is throughout their whole team and throughout a whole game when they play it,” Henderson added.

“One of the other teams who have done it well before, it sticks out in my mind, the year Connacht won the Championship [in 2016]. They got into the flow of games. I felt it worked really well for Connacht and Leinster do that really well now too.”

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joey-carbery-is-tackled-by-iain-henderson-and-rob-herring Henderson and Rob Herring tackle Joey Carbery. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Sitting alongside Henderson in a remote United Rugby Championship media call yesterday afternoon was his provincial and international colleague Rob Herring. A native of Cape Town who qualified to represent Ireland through his Belfast-born grandfather, the dependable hooker has watched with great interest how the South African teams have progressed in the URC.

Even though the Lions missed out on a knockout spot, the Stormers (Herring’s hometown team), the Bulls and the Sharks have all made it through to the last-eight. After initially struggling to find their feet, Herring feels this quartet have proven themselves to be worthy additions to northern hemisphere rugby.

“I think it has been great. Obviously it has refreshed the league and we feel like there’s a lot more interest around it now. Obviously at the start it was difficult because the South African teams were travelling a lot and finding their way with a lot of their Springbok players missing,” Herring said.

“The way they’ve come back in the second part of the season in their home stretches, it has been pretty incredible. You speak to any player who has gone over there and played matches this year, it is a tough place to go and play. Physical games, just relentless and they have three teams in the top-eight. It just proves how great they have been.”

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