Wednesday 21 August 2019

Iain knows the numbers have to add up for Ulster

The maths are simple - brave performances are one thing but bonus points need to be taken

Ulster’s Iain Henderson runs in for his side’s second try during the Champions Cup match
against Clermont Auvergne at the Kingspan Stadium. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Ulster’s Iain Henderson runs in for his side’s second try during the Champions Cup match against Clermont Auvergne at the Kingspan Stadium. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Never mind the dog, beware of the bonus point. When referee Wayne Barnes blew for the last time in Kingspan Stadium last weekend the crowd were so relieved their side had prevailed in a nine-try thriller they may not have dwelt on all its implications. This was Clermont after all, a side who, in full flight, are untouchable in Europe. And Ulster had held them out.

Maybe the cost of that effort dawned as the night wore on. Two bonus points given up to the pool favourites, with the return leg in Clermont this afternoon, looks like a dodgy foray into the insurance market. And Ulster have history on this front.

Last season, for example, they packed for a bonus point in Oyonnax in the first round, but came home without it. It shaped everything that happened thereafter, their chances of qualifying doomed as a best runner-up. This season in Bordeaux, Less Kiss, instead of GUBU, gave us ATCD. "Absolutely, thoroughly, completely, disappointing," was his reaction to seeing his side, on the last play of the game, take a bonus point out of the bag and throw it on the side of the pitch.

So you'd imagine that a pure maths man like Iain Henderson was soon explaining to his team-mates the implications of those two late tries conceded last weekend?

"After," he says, when asked when the penny dropped that this had been no bonanza. "A few hours after for me, maybe. A little later on than most people."

Hard to fathom, that. What the hell do players talk about when patching themselves back together? In Ulster's case that conversation sooner or later swings round to the gap in the trophy cabinet since 2006.

"That's something we looked at, at the end of last season," Henderson says. "We said we're leaving it too late in the season. We're always struggling - not struggling, but always waiting until the very end to fight for top four. Like last year, putting in a great performance against Leinster before we're actually getting there (to the Guinness Pro12 semis).

"We need to do the work at this end of the season, making sure you might get that extra bonus point or even that losing bonus point to put you in that better position, because getting that bonus could be the difference between not switching off at the end of the game and them getting an extra try or giving away a penalty at the end of a game. All those points add up. Definitely there is a real focus on the front end of the season to make sure we can make our life as easy as possible.

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"With Ruan going, probably not in the way he wants to go or any of us want him to go - he's been here for six or seven years now - it would be nice to get something for him and get something for Rory and a few of the older lads, as they've put the work in. It's about time - they deserve to get something."

A recurring theme that, up north. The reality is that their bench doesn't look good enough to support what they want to build. Henderson disputes that this contributed to the endgame in Kingspan, though in fairness he's hardly going to lament the gaps in the system.

"I don't think it's fair to say we don't have real depth," he maintains. "They (Clermont) might have better-known depth, or bigger names, but I don't think the quality of our depth is a problem."

At least his area is not too shabby, and shifting Robbie Diack into the second-row gives Ulster an added dimension up front. So when you have Franco van der Merwe - or Pete Browne, who was in last weekend - Diack and Henderson at 4, 5, 6, you have a good range of skills between lineout and athleticism. Add Alan O'Connor and Ulster's issues with depth are not in the row, especially with young Kieran Treadwell making his way up the ladder.

Henderson delivers everything you could want from a man in this area, and he's developing as a lineout leader himself. This, combined with his head for figures, throws up interesting scenarios with Devin Toner at Ireland training sessions.

"Some teams' lineout calls are words not numbers, but it's frustrating," he says. "I know Devin gets frustrated with me at times because some of his calls mightn't make the exact logical sense that maybe they should, and I get onto him a wee bit, and he gets frustrated at it."

At least he has the good grace not to bring this up when they're defending a lineout five metres from their own line, and Toner has just called something Prof Henderson reckons doesn't quite tally.

"I'd wait and call him aside and say, 'Dev, that doesn't make that much sense'. And he'd tell me to shut up and go away!'"

The image of that conversation - earnest on one side, agitated on the other - is worth capturing. But it pales by comparison with that of Henderson and his girlfriend on Miami Beach as he pops the question. The way he tells it there is some surprise at the searing heat - eh, it's Florida in high summer - and perhaps some surprise too that he has managed not to let the ring slip between his sweaty fingers. Their bags had already gone elsewhere for two days at the start of the holiday, so losing the ring would have fitted in nicely to the script.

"It was so warm, atrociously warm, and you couldn't get a breath of air the whole time," he recalls. "I'd put on a clean T-shirt and go out, and it would instantly be drenched with sweat, and you had to go and change. This didn't bode well. It (sweating like a racehorse) is not a good look. Suzanne was like, 'We'll get a wee photo together'. And I'm sitting in the photo as pale as a sheet, dripping with sweat, T-shirt wringing."

Coming directly after the South Africa tour it was a momentous summer for Henderson. Wisely they have planned the wedding for the week after the Lions tour ends next July, for whether as an original selection or replacement, it's hard to see him not being involved.

Already he had to endure the pain of missing out on making history against that opposition in Chicago last month. He says it's something that's been parked, helped no doubt by the part he played in the two home games that followed. For now, however, it's about going to one of the great grounds on the European circuit, and playing rugby on the front foot. Beating Toulouse in Stade Ernest Wallon was a milestone for Ulster last season, so they'll be looking to that for inspiration this afternoon.

"Definitely. Even going away to Oyannax last year we were down in the first and the second half was a different ball game from Ulster," he says. "When you go away to France, French teams can put on a spectacular first-half performance and then fade off in the second, and the other way around as well, so you have got to be clued in for the 80 minutes.

"We know we can do it and the boys put on a sterling performance over there in Toulouse. I wasn't involved but it was fantastic to see them putting in a performance like that. Looking back, we'll reflect and take confidence from going to one of the top sides in France and being able to go over there and do a job on them. Definitely take confidence."

They'll need to take the points as well.

Ulster: 15. Charles Piutau, 14. Tommy Bowe, 13. Luke Marshall, 12. Stuart McCloskey, 11. Louis Ludik, 10. Paddy Jackson, 9. Ruan Pienaar. 1. Kyle McCall, 2. Rory Best (captain), 3. Wiehahn Herbst, 4. Peter Browne, 5. Franco van der Merwe, 6. Iain Henderson, 7. Chris Henry 8. Sean Reidy. Replacements: 16. Rob Herring, 17. Andy Warwick, 18. Rodney Ah You, 19. Kieran Treadwell, 20. Clive Ross, 21. Paul Marshall, 22. Darren Cave, 23. Jacob Stockdale.

Clermont Auvergne: 15. Isaia Toeava, 14. Noa Nakaitaci, 13. Remi Lamerat, 12. Wesley Fofana, 11. Nick Abendanon, 10. Camille Lopez, 9. Morgan Parra. 1. Etienne Falgoux, 2. Benjamin Kayser, 3. Davit Zirakashvili, 4. Arthur Iturria, 5. Sébastien Vahaamahina, 6. Viktor Kolelishvili, 7. Alexandre Lapandry 8. Damien Chouly (captain). Replacements: 16. John Ulugia, 17. Thomas Domingo, 18. Michael Simutoga, 19. Flip van der Merwe, 20. Peceli Yato, 21. Ludovic Radosavljevic, 22. Patricio Fernandez, 23. Aurelien Rougerie.

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