Ulster captain Iain Henderson. Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Henderson hungry for Ulster to end 'incredibly frustrating' few years

The 30-year-old missed Ireland’s series success against New Zealand due to injury.

THERE’S A SMILE on Iain Henderson’s face as he says it but it’s easy to see that there is more than a hint of true feeling behind the words too.

At a hotel in Slough – not far from Heathrow Airport, so a handy spot for people arriving from South Africa, Ireland, Italy, Wales, and Scotland – it’s launch day for the new URC season. The Ulster captain has been mingling with players from the other 15 teams.

As ever, it’s hard to miss the symbols above the crest on the Leinster jersey Josh van der is wearing.

“It’s frustrating seeing Josh walk around with all of the stars over his badge!” says Henderson.

There are four of them to mark each of Leinster’s Heineken Champions Cup titles and while Ulster have won the European competition once themselves, that came all the way back in 1999.

It bothers Henderson that the most recent European campaign that people regularly mention to him is the 2011/12 season.

Henderson was only starting to break through with the senior squad at that stage but he remembers the northern province’s enjoyable run to the final, where they were well beaten by Leinster.

“We didn’t win anything,” is how the 30-year-old puts it.

They haven’t won anything since their Celtic League title in 2006 and last season goes down as a missed opportunity. Serial winners Leinster were beaten in the URC semi-finals by the Bulls, so Ulster had a chance to secure a possible home final. Agonisingly, they were beaten in the 87th minute of their own semi-final the next day against eventual champions the Stormers.

With a new season arriving, Henderson wants the wait for silverware to end.

“It has been incredibly frustrating over the last number of years,” he says. “Probably 2016/17, we weren’t in that much contention but we’ve been getting better and better each season.

iain-henderson Henderson is hungry for success with Ulster. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“Something we’ve got to be mindful of is our younger guys. They’re coming through now and they’re incredible professionals and players, and it’s ensuring that have that continued desire to want to get better – guys like Mike Lowry, James Hume, Rob Baloucoune, Eric O’Sullivan, who is maybe a bit older but in that same bracket.

“Having those guys continually striving for the next step, not just being happy with last season but having almost a chip on your shoulder going forward.

“In some ways, it’s comforting to know we’re there or thereabouts, we are able to do it. But finally crossing the line is the next step. If I knew how to do it, I would have tried to do it these last 10 years!”

Henderson won’t be fit for the start of the new season against Connacht next weekend and is unlikely to return until the end of October as he continues to recover from the knee and hand injuries he dealt with over the summer.

The former ruled him out of Ireland’s tour of New Zealand only days after they landed on Kiwi soil. Henderson initially thought he might stick around and enjoy seeing a bit of New Zealand before quickly realising he wanted to be at home with his wife and kids.

Cue a stressful and miserable journey home that lasted 46 hours.

“My dad picked me up from the airport and I got to see the kids,” says Henderson. “When I saw them, they were oblivious to everything that was going on and it was incredibly refreshing.

“Then on the flipside of feeling so miserable on the flight, it was one of the first times in my career when I was able to sit back and watch an entire series knowing I’ll have no involvement and I’m not rushing back for anything.”

He enjoyed getting up early with his children in their pyjamas and excited to have their father around. It took Henderson back to his own youth and the anticipation of watching big Ireland Tests on TV at home.

He wasn’t surprised to see Ireland sealing their series success. Even after the first Test defeat, Henderson had a strong feeling that head coach Andy Farrell would be calm and considered, maintaining confidence within the squad.

iain-henderson-and-rob-herring-watch-on-during-the-training Henderson's tour of New Zealand was over before it really began.

The Ulster man speaks very highly of the impact Farrell has had since taking over in 2020.

“He has planned for what he wanted to do in it and his plan is continuing the way he wanted to go.

“He didn’t have the space to do what he wanted to do earlier on and now that he has had that space over the last two or three years, he has definitely been able to grow his team and our team around him to ensure that what he wants is provided on the training pitch.

“He’s obviously an incredibly charismatic character and he is fully bought in. When he’s taking our meetings and explaining what he wants us to do, all of the guys are bought into that. There’s definitely much less of a separation between coaches and players than there is on a lot of teams I’ve played for before.

“We feel like we’ve got a real common goal and we’re doing it together rather than feeling like it’s them telling us what to do.”

It’s no surprise that the IRFU and Ulster aren’t rushing Henderson to get back as soon as possible. They want him to get a good three- to five-week pre-season done ahead of a huge 12 months that build into the World Cup in France.

Henderson jokes that he has become quite friendly with his surgeon, Michael Eames, over the last few years. The latest knee and hand fix-ups all went smoothly and Henderson will continue to be a big presence in the Ireland squad when fit.

He believes there’s plenty more to come from Farrell’s side.

“That first Test [in New Zealand], I don’t think we got it quite the way we should have, second and third obviously, things came together a lot better,” says Henderson. “It’s something that will be massive for us, ensuring that we don’t take a game or two to get into that rhythm again.

“That’s something the coaches might have found frustrating, the fact that we didn’t just step back into it.

“We had a relatively good finish to the Six Nations playing like that. A shaky enough start to the Six Nations getting back into the rhythm of things. So hopefully that’s something that’s a massive work-on for us, ensuring we can do that at the flick of a switch.”

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