Henry eager to restore Ireland pride
No one would question that it has been a tough trip to New Zealand, complete with injuries, a suspension and a nine-try hammering by the All Blacks, but Chris Henry is relishing every second.
The Ulster No 8 gets his first taste of action tomorrow against the New Zealand Maori and he cannot wait. When he sits down to talk about his touring experience thus far, that enthusiasm is tangible. Intelligent, articulate and engaging, the 25-year-old is at pains to stress the importance of a positive attitude within the squad.
Geordan Murphy, fresh from leading Leicester to the English Premiership, is captain tomorrow, but he has an able deputy up front in Henry, whose words carry the calm authority of a player used to captaining teams all the way back to his days at Wallace High School in Lisburn.
"It's so important to have a good spirit in the squad," says Henry. "If you are relaxed, if you're enjoying yourself, if you're allowed to be creative and come out of your shell, that's when you play your best rugby."
He says the slagging around the camp is unceasing and merciless, with Donncha O'Callaghan leading the way, and he sees the Munster second-row as a crucial figure for his playing and non-playing influence.
"You need energisers in the team, you need positivity. Everyone's away from their homes and families, people have kids and wives and it's a long time to be away. That's why you need guys like Donncha, to get people going and forge that camaraderie," he says.
"There's a lot of slagging going on. There's lots of nicknames going around. The one they're trying on me is 'Chazz Michael Michaels' (the Will Ferrell character) from 'Blades of Glory', but I don't know if it will stick.
"Everyone has their duties and that leads to more of it (slagging). Poor old Tom Court's duty on the tour is to provide information about where we are, so every day he has to stand up on the bus and give a few facts, very boring facts to be honest. Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble are doing the music and you don't know what you're listening to half the time.
"Now we have to put in a performance. We've done a lot of analysis on last weekend and obviously we're very disappointed because there was a great vibe in the camp last week and we felt the time had come where we had given ourselves a great opportunity to go for the win. We're shooting ourselves in the foot at times and we let the pressure get to us a wee bit.
"But the most important thing is we've put it to bed and we have a great opportunity to go out against the Maori and show what we can do. We showed it in the second half last weekend, I mean, being down to 14 men is energy-sapping and to score four tries was a great effort.
"And they were good tries, good phases, off-loads, some great heads-up rugby, but they had dangerous players all over the place and were able to score off our turnovers. So, that was a real lesson from last weekend, the ball is precious."
Henry has been one of the most consistent performers in Irish rugby this season, picking up three Ulster awards in May -- the rugby writers' and supporters' player of the year, as well as the personality of the year award. Yet, he could be considered something of a late bloomer, given that he only broke into the Ulster side the previous year. Handed the captaincy when Rory Best was injured, Henry is deeply frustrated by the way the province's season fell off post-Christmas.
"I only got my first cap for Ulster a year and a half ago, so it's been a whirlwind and I've been loving every minute of it. We're ambitious in Ulster and getting selected for Ireland or Ireland 'A' is a big part of that. Maybe there hasn't been a massive representation from Ulster over the past couple of years because we haven't been winning. If you're an Irish coach, you want your team to be full of winners," he says.
There is considerable back-row strength in Ulster with Henry, Stephen Ferris, Robbie Diack, Willie Faloon, David Pollock and Thomas Anderson. Henry is the natural choice at No 8 -- and best choice from an Irish perspective -- so how did he feel when the province went after former All Black Xavier Rush, before signing Bulls back-row Pedrie Wannenburg?
"Ulster are trying to build a squad and I don't worry about it because it's out of my hands. I enjoy playing six, seven or eight, as long as I'm on the pitch that's all that matters. I live in Belfast and I'm happy there.
"When I was younger and not getting game time, it was obviously frustrating, but I'm very happy with the way it's gone and I want to play with Ulster for a long time to come," he says.
The immediate challenge comes against Liam Messam's powerful Maori side. Henry is right in the mix for a first cap in Brisbane the following week, but refuses to think beyond the Maori.
"There's good competition in the back-row and we're all looking to get on the pitch against Australia, but that's for next week. Now it's about getting the performance we really need. To get on the tour was brilliant and now I want to try to take that next step and really give it a go."