Iain Henderson: 'We can compete at the top level.' Ryan Byrne/INPHO

'We play better when our backs are against the wall, when we've got something to prove'

Ulster Captain Iain Henderson says he is relishing the pressure of having to produce a big performance against Harlequins.

ULSTER ARE facing what is tantamount to a knock-out fixture earlier in the season than anyone connected with the northern province would have hoped, yet skipper Iain Henderson believes his squad is one that performs best when backed into a corner.

The situation at the Twickenham Stoop today isn’t quite win or bust for Dan McFarland’s men but, should they fail to beat Harlequins, they will be left hoping for something of a miracle, namely a Cardiff victory over Racing 92 in Paris later in the day.

The way other results panned out in the penultimate round, victory at home over Toulouse last Saturday night would have had Ulster already in the Champions Cup knock-out phase for a fifth time in six seasons, but a lop-sided reverse on their own patch has instead ratcheted up the tension this week.

“I think it’s exciting, honestly,” said Iain Henderson, who after the game will join up with the Ireland squad for their warm-weather training in Portugal ahead of the Six Nations.

“This team, we play better when our backs are against the wall, when we’ve got something to prove, and we’ve a chip on our shoulder.

“Frustratingly so at times, but I feel like there’s a carrot there to make a statement and give ourselves more matches to play later in the year.

“We beat Leinster three weeks ago so we know we can compete at the top level.”

Defeat would, in all likelihood, see Ulster drop down into the second tier Challenge Cup come the spring, a competition that is not “top level” in anyone’s estimations.

Qualifying from your pool in the Champions Cup is essentially the first staging post of the provincial season and the 79-times capped second-row admits it would be a sizeable blow to trip over that initial hurdle.

“Winding right back to the start of the year, (the Champions Cup knock-outs), that’s where we want to be,” he said. “I think if we were to say then that we wouldn’t be there, we’d have been very disappointed. That wouldn’t be a good outcome for us…it would be a very bad outcome for us.

“This is a knock-out game earlier than we would have liked, we’d have liked to be home and dry at this stage, but there’s no easy game in Europe.

“So you have to take your wins when you can and that’s what we haven’t done.

“But we’ll look towards a last-16 game to reignite a bit of a fire and give us something to work toward.”

Ulster were in a similar position this time last year, again having been beaten by French opposition in Round Three.

iain-henderson-is-tackled-by-rieko-ioane-and-will-jordan Henderson is tackled by New Zealand's Rieko Ioane and Will Jordan during the World Cup quarter-final. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Then, it was Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle who had done the damage and many feared that it could prove to be Henderson’s last game for Ulster.

He’d miss the subsequent fixture against Sale that ultimately saw them squeak through to the last-16 and would then suffer a season-ending injury during Ireland’s Grand Slam campaign.

Ulster’s year would end with a URC quarter-final defeat to Connacht, almost two months before there was finally confirmation of a renewal of their skipper’s central contract.

Despite the concern, he says now that leaving was never an option he really explored.

“The negotiation was halted,” he said. “It faltered earlier in the year and then it dragged on longer and longer through no reason other than by the time it got round to the Six Nations, I didn’t want to be negotiating when I was trying to perform.

“It got pushed out the back door until after the Six Nations and then it got done pretty shortly after.

“I’ve always been at this club and it’s always been my desire to win something with this club. Yes, any player who is a captain, who has played international rugby, will get interest from other clubs but that was my main goal.

“After being injured in the Six Nations, there was no way I was going to let my last game for Ulster pass by when I wasn’t even aware of it.

“I wasn’t going to go anywhere and that was that.

“I enjoy playing here, I’m from here, I’m so proud to play for this club, to captain this club, and that’s something that made sure my mind was made up pretty early on in that season.”

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