Five years on from 'bizarre' debut feeling, Henderson primed to peak for Ireland

The Lions lock looks back on a 2012 debut of a ’20-year-old kid who didn’t really know what he was doing’.

THERE’S A GROWING hoard of breathable fabric building up in the Henderson house.

The custom of swapping jerseys in international rugby isn’t quite as visible as it might be in football, but it’s always a worthwhile show of post-match respect. Plus, it leaves both parties with a nice added bit of memorabilia to look back on when a career nears its finish.

Iain Henderson’s time in rugby is a long way from even approaching that point, of course, so it’s not like he’ll be desperately chasing Eben Etzebeth this Saturday night asking for his shirt. Although the Springbok captain is missing from Henderson’s collection even after the pair have been locking horns ever since the 2011 U20 World Cup.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily about collecting them the way you might have collected football cards or Pokemon cards or whatever,” Henderson jokes in a corner of Carton House this week.

“When you do play against someone and maybe do get a good win over them, when there’s a really good contest on the pitch and then afterwards you go in and have a chat with them and swap jerseys, and you end up getting a nice collection.

“That’s a nice thing to share. Rather than ‘trying to get selected for the Argentina game because you want someone’s jersey’ – I think it’s probably about the memory that comes with sharing that jersey.”

One of the prizes in Henderson’s collection actually came from a Ulster current team-mate. Tomorrow, Henderson will take part in a captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium exactly five years after Declan Kidney sent him out to face the Springboks for a Test debut.

His direct adversary that day was Marcell Coetzee. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since, and Henderson looks back with a touch of wonder at how he ended up in the international arena while still a few months shy of a 21st birthday.

Iain Henderson, Michael Bent and Donncha O'Callaghan Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I just remember that I had only really started playing for Ulster at the time and I thought it was very bizarre,” says the older, wiser 25-year-old.

“Coming off the bench with Donncha O’Callaghan, there was a fair few new caps that day – Michael Bent, Richardt Strauss got his new first cap that day, so it was a brilliant experience.

“I was young and raw and inexperienced, and probably didn’t have a bit of a clue what I was doing. That’s what I think now, looking back. But it was obviously a coach’s faith in me (Kidney) sort of saw what they could potentially mould out of this 20-year-old kid who didn’t really know what he was doing.

“Looking back I loved it at the time, it was fantastic.”

Peter O'Mahony and Iain Henderson Henderson takes pointers from Peter O'Mahony, who made his Test debut a few months earlier in 2012. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Approaching a 33rd cap, Henderson isn’t exactly the grizzled veteran in the pack, but on the back of an impressive Lions tour he is steadily hitting the the peak of his powers.

“There have been a couple of performances where I have slipped off a wee bit,” he disagrees modestly.

“It is probably getting more comfortable in your routine and more comfortable preparing for a game. Even though I was around for a few seasons before that, personally, it takes you a while to really make sure you’re playing amongst the team and not chopping and changing positions.

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James Ryan and Iain Henderson Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“On top of that, it is playing in well-coached teams and depending on the players around you. At Ulster, towards the end of last season and into this season, we are beginning to get a standard everyone can play to. It helped me as a player and helped my performances too.”

As for Etzebeth, Henderson’s not so concerned about getting his hands on an empty jersey. He’ll be aiming for the fully filled out ‘Bok shirt to ensure the captain has a limited impact on the contest.

“Having played against him three times last summer, we know that’s something we’ve learned lessons from. Probably good lessons and bad lessons.

“Lessons in how to shut them down and lessons on how maybe, if you don’t shut them down they can definitely take hold of the game pretty easily.”

He adds:  ”We could have made history going down there (last summer) to be the first team to turn over South Africa on an incoming series. But that’s something a wee bit annoying for us and something we realise, it was in our hands to take it.”

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