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Dublin: 9 °C Tuesday 21 May, 2019
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Upbeat Henderson hoping Ulster can 'keep steering the ship in the right direction'

The northern province welcome Edinburgh to Kingspan Stadium tonight.

Iain Henderson.
Iain Henderson.
Image: Stephen Hamilton/INPHO

BEFORE THE SEASON began, Stuart McCloskey laughed when it was put to him that he was now one of the more experienced members of the Ulster squad at the age of 26.

At the same age, the same query is put to Iain Henderson. Only he takes a different approach.

“There’s a fair few new faces but I’ve been really impressed by everyone who’s come in,” he opines, opting to talk up the young lads making their mark than himself.

“Coming back into pre-season a few weeks after the Ireland tour, I was really impressed (with) how pre-season was running, and it stood to us the way guys were training and stayed true to it since I came back in, and it’s been great.”

It is no understatement to again state that Ulster are in a state of flux with a new coach having just arrived and a major change in terms of playing personnel to go along with him.

And yet Henderson remains the constant. Despite a lengthy delay in announcing his new contract with the IRFU last season, the lock did agree to another three years in Belfast, confirming his place as one of Ulster’s now longest serving players.

After a tough summer, which saw him only play one of Ireland’s three Tests against the Wallabies down under after picking up an injury against Munster late last season, he’s now back in the fold ready to make an impression.

It’s safe to say he’s been pleased so far.

“It’s definitely a positive change,” he says of the turnaround in playing staff, with the likes of Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Paul Marshall retiring and Charles Piutau departing for Bristol Bears.

“Those guys have been missed and will be missed, but like I said the young players and the new guys who have come in have stepped things up and really taken the bull by the horns in training.

“It’s only been positive so hopefully we can maintain that. I’m not really fussed by what happens on the pitch, as long as we can maintain the way we’ve been training and keep steering the ship in the right direction.”

That started last week against the Scarlets, whom Ulster eventually edged past 15-13 in their Guinness Pro14 opener, marking a winning start to the Dan McFarland era in Belfast.

Most pleasing was the number of young players on show, with the likes of Eric O’Sullivan, Adam McBurney and newest Academy inductee Angus Kernohan impressing.

But arguably the stand-out performer was Henderson, who popped up with four key lineout turnovers off Ken Owens, halting the visitors’ momentum at vital moments when they looked to threaten.

It’s something we’ve rarely seen from Henderson so far in his career. Usually thought of as a strong ball carrier first and foremost, this was one of the first times we’d seen him in a different role.

Understandably it drew comparisons to certain other second rows that Henderson has played alongside in his career, two giants of the game for both country and province.

Iain Henderson In training. Source: Matt Mackey/INPHO

“Those are two guys who ran the line-out extremely well,” says Henderson when compared to Paul O’Connell and Johann Muller.

“I feel at some stage, those guys aren’t going to be there for the entirety of everyone’s career, someone’s going to have to step into that role.

“The last couple of years that’s been Dev (Devin Toner), that was an automatic transition with Ireland, and it’s something that I’ve enjoyed learning and being able to practice, not only in training but in games as well.

“I do enjoy it when it goes well, but it’s equally frustrating when it doesn’t go well, when you plan and do your homework but then you don’t see what you thought you’d see after you did your homework, and you don’t make those reads that you do.”

Tonight [KO 7.35pm, eir Sport/Premier Sports], the focus turns to revenge against one of only two sides to walk away from Kingspan Stadium last season with an away win: Edinburgh.

The Scots proved to be something of a considerable thorn in Ulster’s side last season, winning in Belfast and then pipping them to the final play-off spot in Conference B as well.

Under Richard Cockerill they’ve found a hardened edge, and with a raft of new signings in at BT Murrayfield this season, they have a repeat appearance in the knockout stages in their sights, as well as top dog status in Scotland.

Last week didn’t go quite to plan, a 17-13 reverse in Swansea to the Ospreys, but the prospect of an important away win over conference rivals Ulster – in back-to-back seasons too – is a massive incentive.

And for Henderson, it’s a chance to set the record straight after Duncan Weir’s last-gasp drop goal gave Edinburgh all four points last year.

“It’s extremely frustrating for us to lose (at home),” he says. “That’s something we do like to pride ourselves on, we know when we play here the home advantage we get from playing here is phenomenal.

“I think it’s more frustrating in our memory, not against Edinburgh but against ourselves for not playing well and doing ourselves justice at home.

“We just need to make sure we relish these home games and put the pressure on, especially at this end of the year when the conditions are good and we can try and play the rugby we know we can play and get the wins we know we can get.

“Edinburgh are a good side, and I thought they were a bit unlucky last week, coming back later on in the game against the Ospreys, and that scoreline probably didn’t do them justice.

“I think they’re a real good side, they put us under serious pressure last year too, we know they’re a good side and they’ll be coming over here looking to right their wrong from last week.

“All we can do is stick to our game, believe in what we’ve been doing and continue drilling it.”

Ulster:

15. Will Addison
14. Craig Gilroy
13. Darren Cave
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Henry Speight
10. Billy Burns
9. John Cooney

1. Andrew Warwick
2. Rob Herring (captain)
3. Ross Kane
4. Kieran Treadwell
5. Iain Henderson
6. Marcell Coetzee
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Nick Timoney

Replacements:

16. Adam McBurney
17. Eric O’Sullivan
18. Wiehahn Herbst
19. Alan O’Connor
20. Sean Reidy
21. Dave Shanahan
22. Angus Curtis
23. Angus Kernohan

Edinburgh:

15. Blair Kinghorn
14. Dougie Fife
13. Mark Bennett
12. Matt Scott
11. Tom Brown
10. Simon Hickey
9. Henry Pyrgos

1. Pierre Schoeman
2. Stuart McInally (captain)
3. WP Nel
4. Ben Toolis
5. Grant Gilchrist
6. Luke Hamilton
7. Jamie Ritchie
8. Bill Mata

Replacements:

16. Ross Ford
17. Allan Dell
18. Murray McCallum
19. Fraser McKenzie
20. Luke Crosbie
21. Sean Kennedy
22. Jaco van der Walt
23. James Johnstone

Referee: Stuart Berry [SARU]. 

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