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Analysis: Ulster's Henderson bounds back into contention for Six Nations

The Ulsterman was dynamic on his return from injury against Leicester on Saturday.

IT’S ALMOST EXACTLY a year to the day since we were extolling the virtues of Iain Henderson after a superb performance for the Ireland Wolfhounds against the England Saxons.

Iain Henderson and Mike McComish Wildman Henderson was in strong form on Saturday. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

We suggested that the Ulsterman was an ideal bench option for Joe Schmidt for the 2014 Six Nations after that showing. 12 months later, we’re heading down a similar route in the lead-up to the 2015 tournament.

Henderson made his first appearance of the season in Ulster’s 26-7 win over Leicester in the Champions Cup on Saturday evening, and the impression was that he had hardly been away.

The 22-year-old has endured a frustrating seven-month period on the sidelines after hip surgery, but Schmidt is a fan of Henderson and his 58-minute display against the Tigers came at an ideal time.

It certainly wasn’t an unblemished evening from Henderson, but there was enough promise in it to have earned the Ulster forward a place in the Wolfhounds side to face the Saxons in Cork on Friday night.

Iain Henderson The 22-year-old is a freakish athlete. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

Further improvement there and Henderson comes straight back into contention for a bench spot during the Six Nations.

A lump of a lad

At 6ft 6ins, Henderson has an ample frame on which to pack lean muscle mass, something he has evidently done during his extended period out of playing action.

Although listed at 114kg by Ulster and 116kg by Ireland, it seems quite probable that Henderson is now operating at somewhere around the 118kg mark. Given his dynamism, he’s a rare and freakish physical specimen within Irish rugby.

We simple don’t produce many players of the 22-year-old’s ilk.

One of the primary benefits of being powerful is in the ball-carrying domain, and although Henderson would have hoped to have made more than six carries from the back row against Leicester, he ensured each of them counted.

Hendo Gainline

It seems likely that Schmidt will use Henderson as a lock in the coming months, given the shape of his 46-man squad. The type of carry we see above is, therefore, what will be expected of Henderson.

It’s close in to the ruck, off a pass from the scrum-half and inviting immediate pressure from the defence. Henderson handles the situation superbly, turning on a sharp burst of footwork to wrong-foot Graham Kitchener [blue scrum-cap], then stretching out a big paw to fend the Leicester lock.

Henderson drives up through the contact of the arriving Tom Croft and presents clean ball back to Ruan Pienaar. It’s a simple thing, but lots of other players would have struggled to make gainline progress here.

Hendo Carry

We get another strong example of Henderson’s ability to make the best of testing carrying situations above, as Leicester’s rush defence means he’s under immediate pressure on receiving the pass from Ian Humphreys.

For such an imposing figure, Henderson’s footwork is always strong and this time he produces a pirouette to beat Seremaia Bai’s initial tackle. Out comes the right-handed fend and then Henderson’s burst of acceleration allows him to get up enough speed to win the collision with Jordan Crane.

Hendo Stripped

Above, there’s a further illustration of Henderson’s power in tight areas, as he ekes out metres after a sloppy lineout and shows excellent fight to find his feet again after Kitchener manages to ground him.

Less positive is the loss of possession in such an important part of the pitch, although it could certainly be argued that Marcos Ayerza has no right to play the ball from such a position. Even still, Henderson will look to improve his ball security next time out.

There were no major linebreaks from Henderson against the Tigers, but even in his limited carries, the 22-year-old demonstrated that he has lost none of his power-footwork combination.

In a championship like the Six Nations, where defences are supremely organised, a carrier of Henderson’s ability could be vitally important.

Ruck is key

Every single forward needs to be on key when it comes to clearing out the breakdown and ruck under Schmidt, who misses absolutely nothing in this area of the game.

For all of Henderson’s ability to carry the ball and smash people in the tackle, if he’s going to play in the second row, then hitting rucks effectively is of central importance.

Encouragingly, the Ulsterman had a strong outing against Leicester in this sector, cleaning out defenders efficiently when called upon to do so, as below.

Hendo Clear

It’s nothing spectacular, and Luke Marshall deserves his share of the credit for lifting Logovii Mulipola’s left leg, but this is the kind of effective removal of a potential jackaling player that Schmidt places so much store in.

Henderson arrives to the ruck in control of his body, rather than sprinting into the contact at full pace, and then gets enough of an upper body dip to lever himself in underneath the 124kg prop and drive him away with Marshall’s help.

Even when there were not obvious bodies in the way to be cleared away, Henderson still looked to have an effect in his rucking, as below.

Hendo Clear 2

Marshall carries the ball into contact, and Henderson is the first supporting player to arrive on the scene. He immediately realises there is no defensive player around the ball who can affect play, so he instantly looks for some other way to impact the game.

Hendo Clear 2.2

Mulipola is standing by and Henderson engages with the tighthead prop, driving him beyond the breakdown area and out of the game. It’s arguably meaningless as Mulipola could have done little to slow Ulster down here, but it’s the kind of additional action Schmidt will always look for.

Even where there’s no body to clear away, the rucking player has to look for some way of impinging the defensive team’s line, tying down one of their players and generally making a nuisance of himself as best possible.

Other side of the coin

Alongside the rucking demands in attack, Henderson got through a heavy amount of work at the breakdown and with his counter-rucking against Leicester. This is a part of the game where both Neil Doak and Schmidt may look to get more from Henderson, given his combination of speed, strength and mobility.

The signs against Leicester were good, even if Henderson had one or two bad decisions.

Hendo Turnover - Second Try

Starting with the spectacular, Henderson makes a superb counter-rucking turnover in the clip above. The former BRA student hammers into the tackle on Adam Thompstone initially, combining with Rory Best and the excellent Marshall to halt the Tigers wing.

From there, Henderson is straight back on his feet and blasting into the ruck. He knocks Mulipola back off the ball with a powerful connection on the left-hand side of the prop’s body, and manages to cleverly work his left leg into the space.

Again, this is all about Henderson using his athletic prowess in the smartest manner possible. He smashes the tackle, explodes into Mulipola and then uses his mobility to dip a foot into the ruck and onto the ball.

Ulster break away and score their second try through Darren Cave moments later.

Hendo Steal

Above, we see Henderson winning a turnover penalty with a classic jackal, after he hunts across the pitch from the inside. Should Schmidt use Henderson as a lock, there might be fewer opportunities for big defensive breakdown plays such as this one.

That said, Paul O’Connell remains a potent force over the ball, and Henderson has that level of competitiveness to aspire to.

It wasn’t all clever from Henderson around the rucks when Ulster were forced to defend, however, as highlighted in the example below.

Hendo No Hands

Referee Pascal Gaüzère twice shouts ‘No hands!’ in this instance, giving Henderson ample time in which to move away from the ball. However, the 22-year-old either doesn’t hear or ignores the direction and Ulster concede the penalty.

Henderson’s efforts around the defensive breakdown and ruck are certainly something to be encouraged, given his frame, technical skill and ability to move around the pitch at ease, but his decision making in this area must also be sharp.

In the frame

Henderson made eight impactful tackles against Leicester on Saturday, contributing many more positive moments than we have highlighted above, for a highly satisfying return to rugby after his long-term spell on the sidelines.

Oddly, he took only a single line-out throw [one that wasn't intended for him], and the set-piece is somewhere he will need to prove a point in Ireland camp this week and against the Saxons on Friday, presuming he plays.

Iain Henderson Henderson started in the second row in June's first Tests against Argentina. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

If he can do that and push closer to fitness, Henderson strides into the frame for Six Nations selection. O’Connell and Devin Toner are the established starting locks, but with Dave Foley now an injury doubt, Henderson may be going head-to-head with Mike McCarthy for a bench position against Italy on 7 February.

The Ulsterman delivered in last season’s Six Nations as a replacement, while his ability to also cover the back row [where he started against Italy in 2014] is a major advantage.

Still only 22, he appears to be the future for Ireland’s second row, but Henderson can make an impact now.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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