Saturday 23 February 2019

Dan's the man as Henderson relishes return of good times

Leicester 13 Ulster 14

Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey hands-off Leicester’s George Ford at Welford Road. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey hands-off Leicester’s George Ford at Welford Road. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

A basket-case no longer, Ulster's internationals depart for Portugal this morning as European quarter-finalists, as they start their preparations for a short trip to the Aviva Stadium to face Leinster.

If not a rebirth, they have undergone a reboot under Dan McFarland, who arrived at the most rancorous moment in the team's history and came with a simple message and a ruthless approach.

The team has been transformed in terms of mindset and personnel.

The squad may lack depth and the accents in the dressing-room may be more varied than ever before, but there is a belief coursing through the team that saw them engineer their way out of a 13-point hole in the final half an hour at Welford Road on Saturday.

It means they qualified for the Champions Cup last eight with five wins out of six pool games; a return that few outside of the camp would have foreseen at the outset of the tournament.

Given the amount of turbulence and change the organisation went through last summer, this always looked like a long-term plan for the first-time head coach.

Graham Kitchener of Leicester Tigers wins possession in the lineout ahead of Iain Henderson of Ulster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Graham Kitchener of Leicester Tigers wins possession in the lineout ahead of Iain Henderson of Ulster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Yet he set a short-term goal of reaching the knockout stages and challenged his team to achieve it. They have responded impressively.

"It has kind of been a goal from the start of the season, or probably even from the last pool game last season," Iain Henderson explained after making a strong return from thumb surgery.

"It's been a target of ours and then after the first Racing game we wanted to move forward and win the rest of our games in the pool, and we've done that.

Direction

Rory Best celebrates the narrow win with his son Ben. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Rory Best celebrates the narrow win with his son Ben. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"Dan has been absolutely fantastic. He has come in and added direction for a lot of the young lads.

"I was counting in the changing room there, there was maybe six or seven guys who are in their first season in an Ulster jersey.

"He's come in and added real direction, and maybe a few guys who have been there a number of years have maybe been lacking.

"We haven't been competing at the top level the way we should be and I think Dan asked a lot of new guys and old guys to step up. I think in that aspect he's done really well."

Jacob Stockdale celebrates with team mates. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jacob Stockdale celebrates with team mates. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

A combination of clever recruitment and good talent identification from within has brought about this success.

Dubliners Eric O'Sullivan and Marty Moore have stabilised the scrum around Rory Best, while Jordi Murphy and Nick Timoney both played their part, with the latter replacing the big-money signing Marcell Coetzee when he limped off with another injury.

Will Addison, Kieran Treadwell, Sean Reidy and Billy Burns are players of Irish heritage who have all played their part; while Louis Ludik is one of the best value project players despite his lack of a cap.

John Cooney replaced his fellow Leinsterman Dave Shanahan with half-an-hour to go and inspired a calm in those around him to steer the ship back from the brink.

Despite being drawn from a host of different backgrounds, Ulster are playing with a common purpose.

Led by Henderson and captain Rory Best, the home-grown contingent is the key to finding the collective spirit that really shone through in Leicester.

For this was far from a fluid performance.

Ulster were pretty terrible before half-time; worryingly from an Ireland point of view Best struggled and was badly out of touch, and they lost the crucial collisions which stopped them getting any flow in the game.

They were 13-0 down thanks to Matt Toomua's try and eight points from George Ford's boot, but played their way into the game by upping the pace.

With Cooney providing some calm and direction, they worked their way into position for Moore to cross from the back of a maul, before their latest wing wonder Robert Baloucoune latched on to Burns' chip to score.

Cooney calmly slotted both conversions and they defended their way home.

It meant they qualified for the last eight and face a serious test against Leinster at the Aviva. Few will give them a chance, but they're in bonus territory already.

After four seasons of going out in the pool stages, Henderson is now looking forward to looking his Ireland colleagues in the eye as an equal this morning.

"It's good to be able to go down there and I'm sure the other players will say, 'well done, it's great to see you beating the other big teams'," he said. "It's good to be part of a successful group.

"With Ireland you feel like Ireland are going to do well so being able to go somewhere with players who are doing well, having done well ourselves, is a really good feeling."

LEICESTER TIGERS - J Holmes; J May, M Tuilagi, M Toomua, J Olofela; G Ford (capt), B Youngs; G Bateman (F Gigena 67), J Kerr (R McMillan 67), D Cole (J Heyes 67); M Fitzgerald, G Kitchener (H Wells 60); M Williams, B O'Connor (W Evans h-t), S Kalamafoni.

ULSTER - L Ludik; R Baloucoune, W Addison, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, D Shanahan (J Cooney 50); E O'Sullivan (A Warwick 50), R Best (capt), M Moore (R Kane 77); I Henderson, K Treadwell (A O'Connor 65); S Reidy (R Herring 65), J Murphy, M Coetzee (N Timoney 36).

Ref - A Ruiz (France)

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