Friday 22 March 2019

Iain Henderson hopes for a personal magnificent seven against Les Bleus

Iain Henderson: ‘I feel an awful lot better in managing my time now’ Photo: Sportsfile/Sam Barnes
Iain Henderson: ‘I feel an awful lot better in managing my time now’ Photo: Sportsfile/Sam Barnes
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

For a man with a head for figures, you'd think Iain Henderson is all over his stats against France. This is a fella who had accepted a place at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh to do actuarial studies until Jonny Bell, then with Ulster, managed to head him off at the pass and point towards Queen's - and the Ulster Academy.

So, six games against today's opponents, including one at under 20 level, and not one defeat among them. How many Ireland players can lean for support on a file like that, stuffed with so many good memories? Henderson looks baffled. Not a rashers.

"You see, that's amazing," he explains. "Because in my head, France are always a tough opposition and in the back of my head I'm always, not nervous of playing them, but that they can catch you completely off guard and win. I've never actually thought of that, but I remember the draw now and a few of the wins."

Now would not be a great time to be bucking that trend. And perhaps it's opportune to have a lucky charm back in camp when the team really needs to perform. For Henderson it was a long wait between the autumn series when he featured in three of the four Tests, to a fortnight ago in Rome when he came off the bench. And like his Ulster team-mate Will Addison, who had been struck by the edginess in the Ireland camp when he spent a week with them last summer - the week after they had lost in Brisbane - lads are antsy.

"Yeah, that first week I came in you could tell there wasn't so much nerves, probably more an air of frustration," Henderson says. "Coming in I felt that frustration ended up ramping up training a wee bit, with players trying to prove to themselves, their peers, the coaches that they are capable of doing what potentially wasn't produced on the weekends.

"That's not to say there weren't glimpses of very good play through it all, but maybe not just linking them all together as fluidly as we would like. That's my overall sense from training in the Italy week - and that was a massive emphasis and work-on that I felt people were putting in on the pitch sessions, to try and get flow between everything that you do and ensuring that the more you get that right in the week then hopefully it will reproduce itself on the weekend."

For Henderson there is a relief that he's fit to take part at all. His maths kick in when an injury strikes. If a seven-year window is average for a Test player and your injury coincides with a Champions Cup slot then that will surely have a knock-on for your Six Nations chances as well as missing out on club time. The way he sees it, a sixth of your international career could go up in smoke pretty easily. So time in camp is, as he describes it, precious. Especially when the ticking sound you hear is the body clock.

"I turned 27 a few weeks ago and I feel like I'm still a 21- or 22-year-old. But that's not the way it is. Time moves incredibly fast and I've missed Six Nations and I've missed autumn internationals just over an injury that happened one day and you're like: 'Right, I've got to bet back.' And before you know it you've missed the whole season of games. It's one of those things. Obviously you can't do anything about your injuries but you can do what you can to look after yourself and try as best as possible to avoid those injuries - and that's key."

Jonny Bell recalls Henderson as a lad who said very little on the training field but would undergo a personality change on match day. The problem was that his prep wasn't all that it should be. By the time Henderson got into the pro game his 'training age' was much younger than some of his peers who had come through the hothouse that is the upper end of the schools' game. At Belfast Royal Academy he was hardly in a satellite competition but neither was he at the coalface. And by the time he arrived into Joe Schmidt's orbit his co-ordinates were not what was demanded.

"I feel an awful lot more comfortable (now) in training and learning and I feel an awful lot better in managing my time now whereas maybe I wasn't as good at that. There were times turning up for training having not done the homework, not understanding what I was supposed to do, which then impacts on your performance because it might be Thursday/Friday before a Saturday game and trying to rattle around your head: 'what's all this?' Trying to get your thoughts together whereas it's something you have to learn on your own. Obviously you can have a good bit of guidance through that but you have to experience how not to do it to do it (right). James Ryan's come in and done incredibly well. He's light years ahead of where I was at his age. His detail and professionalism is phenomenal - probably one of the best in the squad."

At least Henderson - who will be leading the lineout this afternoon - came into his own last weekend for local knowledge. With the squad shifting to Queen's in Belfast for an open session, the change in scenery was completed with a black cab tour of the city. It's a great way to turn back the page on history.

"It was good. It was interesting. I've been up and down the Falls and the Shankill loads of times. Interesting and funny. I learned a few things I didn't know. A few of the murals I'd seen before but I didn't really know what they were. A lot of the lads who were coming up didn't know the extent of it. Didn't know about the Peace Wall, didn't know about the length of it. The Peace Wall - obviously it's dividing the two areas but it's so frustrating at night time. Sometimes you just want to cut across the road and you come up against a big 40-50-foot wall. Then you've got to turn around and track all the way back across town. I suppose it's so different from where we were 15-20 years ago. I just thought it was class having the lads up there being able to do something like that."

Pointing out what once were hot spots gave the second row a chance to be tour guide for Dan Leavy and Jack Conan, who shared his cab. He reckons having gone to BRA was a useful start on that road.

"A lot of people say it's predominantly Protestant but that's incorrect. I think the school's almost 50-50. It's in a relatively nationalist area (Cliftonville Road). I'm Protestant (but) I've no problem with anything like that. I wouldn't think twice about going anywhere in Belfast. I find it all very interesting because you hear lads down here throwing out random jokes about it not being safe coming to Belfast, or foreigners coming over saying: 'I thought Belfast was supposed to be rowdy or rough.' Yes, there might be the odd mugging or car stolen but no more and no less than any other major city in any country."

He probably has a stat in his head to back that up. The next figure Iain Henderson needs to sort is the entry in his win/loss column against France. The target is a magnificent seven.

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