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Henderson a student of Best but 'not expecting' to be named new Ulster captain

Iain Henderson is the epitome of the side Ulster are trying to become, and fast becoming.

Iain Henderson has learned from one of the best leaders in Irish rugby history, but doesn't 'expect' to be Ulster captain next year.
Iain Henderson has learned from one of the best leaders in Irish rugby history, but doesn't 'expect' to be Ulster captain next year.
Image: Declan Roughan/INPHO

IT’S EASY TO forget that when he burst onto the scene as a fresh-faced 20-year-old, Iain Henderson was a fairly shy and unassuming character.

As hard as that is to believe given his imposing frame and destructive manner any time you hand him a rugby ball, the transformation in Henderson has been one that has seen him turn from baby-faced assassin into a leader of men.

No longer is he that up-and-coming future Lion that everyone expected him to be as he rose through the ranks at both schools and Academy level, and no longer is he that awkward lock/back-row hybrid that always seemed to be pushed and pulled where he was needed most rather than allowed to settle into one position and flourish.

Now he is Ulster’s commanding presence in the second row, standing head and shoulders above the opposition and casting fear into those who watch him rampaging towards them, knowing he’s just as likely to careen over the top of them as he is to use his strength to bounce and spin around them.

But even off the pitch, his demeanour has visibly changed from that kid making his way in the professional ranks into a confident speaker who shoulders a fair bit of the burden that comes with the leadership of a squad such as Ulster’s.

Hamish Watson and Ross Ford tackle Iain Henderson Hamish Watson and Ross Ford tackle Iain Henderson during Ulster's win at Edinburgh in the Pro14. Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

It hasn’t happened overnight, nor has it been a simple process. Then again, he has been learning from one of the most natural leaders that Irish rugby has ever seen, which is sure to be of some benefit at least.

“I’m certain a lot of the players looked at me when I came in as a lanky kid who didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” Henderson laughs as he relaxes into the media suite at Kingspan Stadium, another change since his ascent to the pro ranks.

I knew I wasn’t an incredibly natural rugby player. I had to learn, I had to take a lot of learnings from players I played with and Rory [Best] was definitely one of those players — one of those players you have to look at and almost analyse what he does, to get to where he has and get what he has got.

“Right from the very start when I joined, Rory was an incredibly influential player. Not just for me, but for everyone in the squad, and I think it is one of his best aspects of him being a player and a captain is how much influence he has over not just other hookers, not just the pack but throughout the whole team.

“Starters, non-starters, the respect that he commands and that is not unearned respect. That’s because everyone understands that the player in his position and the captain he is because of what he does on the field and off the field.

“People pick up and understand that’s why he is so good and that’s why he has had the longevity he has, and continues to play top-level rugby.

“In terms of Ulster Rugby, he kind of has been Ulster Rugby for the last 10 years or more. Since I have come in, it has been Rory Best as the key player.”

Iain Henderson Henderson speaking at Ulster's press conference earlier this week. Source: Declan Roughan/INPHO

That’s all going to change, of course. Today will be Best’s swansong as an Ulsterman in Belfast, signing off at Kingspan Stadium one last time in their Guinness Pro14 quarter-final against Connacht. Come next season, there will be a new man at the helm.

Speaking of that…

“I don’t know if I am going to be captain, that’s God’s honest truth,” Henderson quickly asserts.

He’s seen as the natural successor to Mr. Ulster Rugby as the next man off the conveyor belt since, and he appears to have been groomed for the role ever since he made his debut down at the Galway Sportsground back in April 2012.

By now he also commands a considerable amount of respect in the changing room for both his abrasive, unrelenting style of play and his ability to control the opinions of those wearing white (or even green) around him. He’s been learning off Best, so who better to slot in when the man himself rides off into well-earned retirement?

I probably am not expecting to be captain. Rob Herring has done it before. Alan O’Connor has captained many, many times. There is a lot of great leaders in the squad. When I have been captain, that’s something I think makes it a lot easier than you might anticipate it being.

“There are so many leaders, so many strong characters in the squad,” adds the lock. “People making good, well-thought-out decisions on the pitch under a fair bit of pressure.

“The fact that I said that before, when I have captained, it is beneficial to our squad that we have leaders. It goes to show that there are a fair number of candidates that could be captain outside of the ones I mentioned.”

That, in many ways, is a natural segue into what has undoubtedly been a rapid turnaround for Ulster from this time 12 months ago. Turmoil has turned to triumph. Anguish has turned to adulation. A play-off for a Champions Cup place has turned into a play-off for a semi-final place.

No doubt that the multitude of leaders within the squad, as mentioned by Henderson, have played their part and then some, drawing together a group of players that, while not fractured, were rudderless and slowly drifting towards the rocky shore at an alarming rate.

It was expected to be a long process under Dan McFarland to get back to their former glories. While nobody was willing to admit it, the goal was never silverware, it was getting back to a position where they wouldn’t have to rely on a one-off shoot-out simply to take their place at the highest level of European rugby again.

Iain Henderson is presented with the Guinness PRO14 Man of the Match award by Ryan Ewing Henderson is presented with the man of the match award at Murrayfield. Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

By standing here this weekend with a quarter-final to play, they eclipsed that aim, and you’d find few willing to correct you if you said they’d surpassed all expectations in Europe by making the quarter-finals there too, and then pushing Leinster right to the brink in that quarter-final for good measure.

When it’s all said and done, no matter how this weekend goes, this has been a good season for Ulster.

“Last season, people I’m sure would argue, is the worst season Ulster have had in however many years, but had we not lost to Wasps and to Edinburgh at home we’d have been in the same scenario as we were this season. You think of the seasons as chalk and cheese but the margins between them are fine,” Henderson points out, however.

Then again, the mood around the Kingspan Stadium has completely changed.

“We weren’t as far away as people thought we were but we’ve come on leaps and bounds since then,” he continues. “That’s something that’s been down to a number of factors, players, coaches, restructuring of training, that’s been the most influential things I think.

“It’s very interesting to see the difference in games and the difference that we’ve had in training. Yes, I’m sure there’s a correlation but it’s hard to say if it’s a direct one. Training has changed, the profile of the squad has changed and that’s increased the standard, increased the demands for standards to be set.

Players are much younger, a lot more accepting of change, accepting of the way training is done, accepting of the way Ulster played, willing to perform and change at different levels. We’ve changed how we play, we’re trying to play faster, play more, play a quicker brand of rugby.

“That doesn’t just happen on the pitch, that’s through pre-season and through training during the week. At the start of the year, I don’t think we had it nailed on, but it’s been a continuous work on for us and we’ve done that.

“It’s the willingness to change, a willingness to learn from the squad.”

Rob Herring and Caolin Blade Ulster have a point to prove against Connacht Source: James Crombie/INPHO

As a result of those changes, we sit where we are today, Ulster welcoming Connacht to Kingspan Stadium for this quarter-final knowing that a place in the semi-finals of the league is right within their grasp.

Being at home, the expectation is they should do that, and the fans will turn up in anticipation as opposed to trepidation. They haven’t seen knockout rugby in Belfast since some European quarter-final against a team from London back in April 2014 – anybody remember how that game went?

That, however, is a sign of just how long this province has been starved of where they believe they should be. The fans know that, the staff at Ulster know that and you’d better believe that the players know that too.

“[A home quarter-final] is something that doesn’t happen very often at all. We were just talking about it there; the last one was Saracens and that’s the only one I’ve been involved in,” says Henderson.

“It’s something we’ve worked towards all season, something we set out to achieve and it was great to get with a game in hand, but it hasn’t been easy to work towards the whole season. It’s definitely been a difficult task, but I think the lads have done really well.

“From the start of the season we said we wanted to take our learnings game on game and get better and better as we go, and we’ve managed to secure one with a game to go and the lads are buzzing to get another shot at quarter-final rugby.”

Bundee Aki and Jack Carty celebrates Connacht ended their 58-year hoodoo in Belfast earlier this season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Of course, the aim isn’t to end here, and indeed if they did lose to Connacht tonight then it would put a serious dampener on what has been a sensational campaign up to this point. But this team is young and ambitious, and they want a place in the final four.

That being said, they approach this week with the phrase once bitten, twice shy ringing in their ears. Last time they welcomed neighbours Connacht to Kingspan Stadium their 58-year unbeaten record against the western province went down the drain, and a loss to the same opponents in December means they haven’t beaten Andy Friend’s men in their last three attempts.

It’s not a problem, per se, but it has turned Connacht into a fairly awkward team for Ulster, particularly when there’s so much on the line. Dan McFarland summed it up pretty well when he said that his men have no divine right to win this game just because they’re at home, and last October’s defeat is all the warning they need to heed.

“Connacht came up earlier in the season, obviously overturned history since whenever it was they last won up here.

It was something I sat here earlier in that week and said: history’s there and it’s not set in stone – things get broken and re-arranged all the time, so hopefully they won’t be winning consecutive games up here.

“That’s something we know Connacht came with last time, a real attitude and mentality to try and overturn us physically, and to be fair for most of the game I think they did.

“We had a few frustrating decisions in that game that were out of our hands, but as a whole we really didn’t play that well during that game and since then we’ve progressed our game and we’re playing better rugby, and that’s something we ourselves know and have worked on and hopefully we’ll be able to show that at the weekend.”

Back then they responded to that result in the perfect fashion by putting the Leicester Tigers to the sword a week later in the start of their Champions Cup campaign, but this week they’ll have to respond again. Once more that result rears its head regardless of the fact it occurred seven months ago, and they’ll need to beat it all over again.

“Immediately afterwards there’s always a fair bit of emotion. However, it’s how quickly you can separate yourself from that emotion and turn around – I know the game the next week won’t necessarily be against Connacht, but it’ll be a performance, and that’s something we’ve said consistently this season to try and get better and better after each performance and not let yourself get bogged down in what you’ve done, I think,” insists Henderson.

Someone was saying that the Connacht home game was the only one we’ve lost this year and obviously that doesn’t sit easy with us — it’s been that many years since they won up here and that’s one they managed to turn over.

But, like Henderson, this team isn’t who they were a while ago. They’ve grown considerably as time has gone on and are now bigger, stronger and much more ferocious than the past version of themselves. The parallels are striking, and perhaps not surprising.

A semi-final beckons, and the man who epitomises who Ulster are right now is leading them every step of the way.

Ulster (v Connacht)

15. Mike Lowry
14. Robert Baloucoune
13. Luke Marshall
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Rob Lyttle
10. Billy Burns
9. John Cooney

1. Eric O’Sullivan
2. Rory Best (Capt)
3. Ross Kane
4. Iain Henderson
5. Kieran Treadwell
6. Nick Timoney
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Marcell Coetzee

Replacements

16. Rob Herring
17. Andy Warwick
18. Tom O’Toole
19. Alan O’Connor
20. Sean Reidy
21. Dave Shanahan
22. Darren Cave
23. Angus Kernohan

Connacht (v Ulster): 

15. Tiernan O’Halloran
14. Stephen Fitzgerald
13. Tom Farrell
12. Bundee Aki
11. Matt Healy
10. Jack Carty
9. Kieran Marmion

1. Denis Buckley
2. Dave Heffernan
3. Finlay Bealham
4. Ultan Dillane
5. Gavin Thornbury
6. Eoin McKeon
7. Colby Finga’a
8. Jarrad Butler (c)

Replacements:

16. Shane Delahunt
17. Peter McCabe
18. Conor Carey
19. Eoghan Masterson
20. Paul Boyle
21. Caolin Blade
22. Tom Daly
23. Darragh Leader

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