Patience proving virtue for Henry
After biding his time, Chris Henry is keen to make his mark for Ulster and Ireland, says Brendan Fanning
Chris Henry is explaining why three months ago he signed a two-year contract extension with Ulster.
It reminds you of an interview with Mark McCall in Bangor in 2006. Back then, when he was head coach in Ravenhill, McCall was running through the names in his pack -- Roger Wilson, Neil Best, Rory Best, Matt McCullough, Neil McMillan -- and thinking of how good the future looked. In the way that Leicester, Wasps and Munster had dominated Europe by relying on a core of forwards maturing and growing together, then Ulster had the makings of something similar.
For a variety of reasons that group broke up. Now, listening to Henry's variation on the same theme, you wonder is it something in the water up there that hope springs eternal.
"I want to win something here and that's the bottom line," he says. "And I think the way Ulster are going, with the signings David Humphreys is making, and the form of the Irish internationals that we have, plus the guys on the fringes who are coming through -- the likes of Dan Tuohy and Darren Cave -- I can only see this team getting better and better. I certainly want to be involved in moving the team forward and getting success."
His position on this journey is interesting. Two seasons ago Henry was the starting number eight and doing well, recognised by Declan Kidney with Ireland 'A' involvement thanks to his consistency with his province. Then Ulster went chasing Cardiff's Xavier Rush for the middle of their backrow, and when that didn't work out, they nailed Pedrie Wannenburg instead. "Squad building," was how Henry described it at the time, adding that this task was out of his pay grade so he'd concentrate on what was in his contract: playing. Indeed playing wherever they told him to play.
It had taken him long enough to break through in the first place, for early in the Matt Williams era in Belfast the new coach hadn't made much of him, so there would be no progress until the Australian moved on. It got to the point where a back-rower called Grant Webb was hired from New Zealand as cover in 2007 when Stephen Ferris and Roger Wilson were injured. So Henry played a lot of provincial 'A' rugby in that period. He was so far above that level other coaches found it baffling. Henry never complained.
The modern incarnation of the man is as an openside, considered important enough to captain the team when the World Cup stole Johann Muller and Rory Best, and good enough not to leave out of the team, period. So while Brian McLaughlin's plan had something to do with having a heavyweight backrow -- along with Wannenburg and Ferris he has achieved that -- it was also about recognising that while Henry is not the quickest seven in Christendom, he knows his way around the park.
Willie Faloon, their specialist openside, has been the loser in this. You wonder though will Henry get the same sinking feeling if what's coming down the track doesn't get derailed, ie a serious prospect in the shape of Dungannon boy Ali Birch.
"I thought he was without doubt the man of the match against Leinster," Henry says of this threat to his position. "When you're training with him you can tell he's a good player but you could see he was so hungry for that game -- he's definitely going to have a long future with Ulster as well. He actually reminds me very much of Willie Faloon, who obviously hasn't had as much game time as he'd have liked. I'm Willie's biggest fan as well, so it's saying something that there are so many young guys starting to come through and it's only going to be a good thing for Ulster rugby."
Is it possible that one man can be so selfless, so focused on the greater good that his own role in it is not an issue? Or maybe Henry simply backs himself to shift across the backrow again if the threat becomes critical. That's how he sounds at any rate when it comes to talking about the green jersey.
Chris Henry's one experience wearing that shirt was potentially career-ending. His cap came on the tour to New Zealand and Australia two summers ago. His chance arrived in the Brisbane Test, and before you could say: 'Well it will be interesting to see how Henry will cope with this then,' he had picked from the base of a scrum and seen his pass to Tomás O'Leary intercepted by Luke Burgess at the cost of a try. Was that a long walk back to the posts or what?
"My heart just sank," he says. "I couldn't believe it had happened, especially as the worst thing for me was that the management -- the video analysis -- had said to me: 'Just be careful, he (Burgess) likes to shoot'."
A handy enough target you'd have to say. Typical of the Henry mentality, however, he not only put it to bed but tucked it up and said goodnight and looked forward to the new dawn. He is 27 now, in good shape physically and with a solid bank of experience. The endorsement of that should come with selection for the Wolfhounds against the Saxons in three weeks.
"Declan knows I can play in all the backrow positions and I hope that will go in my favour. Obviously it all depends on my performances as well and I honestly believe that the next couple of games in Europe are going to determine what he's thinking. I'd like to think that I'm on the radar with him anyway and hopefully I'm putting my hand up and saying this is where I want to be.
"Ultimately, it's up to him but I have a great relationship with Declan and he's been very good to me. You talk about that tour to Australia and getting that cap? My father passed away a month before that so personally there were a lot of things going on in my mind and it was a very difficult time. I couldn't have asked any more of him and he was always so supportive, always chatting to me and asking if I needed my own space, or needed my own hotel room, and stuff like that. He knows I'm here and keen and pushing. In my career I don't want to look back and have any regrets and if he thinks I'm ready then so be it and I'd enjoy every minute possible."
His dad, William, died the day after the last Ulster game of the season, without knowing that his son would be heading Down Under with Ireland for the first time.
"It was definitely one of the hardest times of my life," he says. "He was such a huge person for me in my rugby, and my biggest fan. When I talk about it, it still shocks me so much that he's not here. You know when you go out and put on that shirt? He was always there and never missed an Ulster game for me and gave me that extra drive. I'm very blessed to have such a close family there for me as well."
On Friday night in Edinburgh, Henry got what he was looking for from the trip to Edinburgh in the Pro12. First there was more personal yardage than he might have expected; second was result for the team. "Mission accomplished -- absolutely," he says. "It's a very tough place to come and get a win let alone a bonus point so it sets up nicely for the huge challenge next week."
If Ulster lose to the Tigers on Friday in Belfast, it will shape their season -- as in warp it. Even if they win there are conditions attached for they can't let Leicester leave with anything. Already they trail in the tie by 1-0 on tries and 4-0 on match points. Even if they shut them out, Clermont are odds-on to take 10 points from their last two ties -- the second against Ulster, in France -- which would leave Henry and co probably chasing a runners-up spot from a fairly weak position. In which case the side road into the Amlin would open up.
"It was absolutely devastating not to get a bonus point in the first leg," he says. "For us to get nothing against them was really hard because it's cost us in years before, missing out on a point at critical times. Whether it's going to be the case this year? I thought we played great rugby at times in Leicester -- definitely -- because it's such an intimidating place. Our starting point is to win in Ravenhill, and then if we can get away from them and deny them anything then that's brilliant.
"But our mindset has to be first to win the game. Clermont then is going to be incredibly tough but we've won big games away before and in my mind certainly I'm not ruling out Clermont for a win for us as well. I hope it's all to play for."
Having waited patiently in line you have to admire where he is now. Brian McLaughlin may rely on his South African imports for firepower, but Henry sets an example all can follow.
Sunday Indo Sport