Friday 19 January 2018

'They try to bully you, but you have to stand up to them'

Iain Henderson has no fear of South Africa as he relishes Ireland return

Iain Henderson during squad training in Westerford High School, Cape Town, South Africa Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Iain Henderson during squad training in Westerford High School, Cape Town, South Africa Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Joe Schmidt is not often wrong, but when he addressed his squad earlier this week and said that no Irish team had ever won at Newlands, a voice piped up at the back of the room and corrected him.

In 2012, the Ireland U-20s beat France in the Junior World Cup fifth-place play-off at the famous Cape Town venue and the four members of the current senior squad who were involved weren't about to let their little bit of history be forgotten.

By far the most advanced member of that generation of players is Iain Henderson, who recalls his last trip to the southern tip of Africa warmly.

Mike Ruddock's side opened up with a 23-19 win over the Baby Boks at Stellenbosch, before defeat to England ended their chances of winning the competition outright. Indeed, the hosts would recover from their opening-day loss to Ireland to claim the trophy.

That win is one that lasts in the memory, however, because it featured a physical assault from an Ireland team who bullied their hosts off the park on home soil. And a lanky second-row named Iain Henderson was at the heart of the effort.

"They try to bully you," he recalls of that performance. "You just have to stand up to that as best you can and not let that worry you.


"Joe said that no Irish team had won at Newlands, but he was wrong. Tadhg (Furlong), me, Marmo (Kieran Marmion) and Stuart Olding beat France in Newlands. So, we've done it before. But it's a massive challenge and one we're going to take head on."

Four years on, he's back in Cape Town and is intent on wreaking similar havoc. Last year's World Cup confirmed Henderson as the leading light from the next generation of young stars coming through the Irish system and today he wins his 24th cap.

Injuries may have robbed Ireland of a host of their star names, but the 24-year-old wrecking ball second-row is back after his serious hamstring injury and has begun to show signs of real form towards the end of the season.

At one stage, it didn't look like the dynamic ball-carrier would recover in time from tearing the muscle from the bone when playing against Edinburgh in December, but he explained that the injury was not as severe as the one suffered that forced Paul O'Connell to retire at the World Cup.

"Your hamstring comes up three tendons and Paulie tore all three and damaged his sciatic nerve too," he said. "I damaged the other two, but only one came off. One had to be knitted back on and the other two took time to heal themselves. It was painful for the first 30 or 40 seconds, but after that it wasn't as sore as Paulie's was.

"I needed an operation and went to a guy in London, he opened up my backside and stitched it back on. It was an uncomfortable plane journey back, because it's right under your glute, right where you sit down and I wasn't able to sit down really for six or eight weeks, and that was probably the most uncomfortable thing.

"After that, it was just a matter of rehabbing, getting back moving and getting range and strength back into it."

He returned in time for the run-in and hit his stride for Ulster's play-off charge and, while that ended in defeat to Leinster, there was no doubting Henderson was back to his best at the RDS three weeks ago.

So, as Ireland deal with the absence of so many of their big stars, they can at least count on the form of a man growing in importance.

Especially since he's feeling fresh despite the fact that he and his team-mates are in the 12th month of their season.

"It's strange, I kind of feel like I've played no rugby this year but I could end up having played 19 or 20 games in the season, which is a fair amount," he explained.

"It feels like I've only played a handful, but it's because it was so split up because of my hamstring injury."

Earlier this week, forwards coach Simon Easterby said he wants to see new leaders emerge over the course of this three-Test tour of South Africa and he name-checked Henderson when discussing the need for players to put their hands up.

"He's a big man, he's explosive, he's powerful, he's got to step up now and other players have to step up and take the mantle on of players that we maybe don't have anymore," the former flanker said.

Henderson always cuts a relaxed figure around the camp, but he believes there are plenty of leaders in this young Irish travelling squad.

"There's definitely a shift in age. For one of the World Cup games we had the highest average age ever to play at a World Cup, it was beaten a few weeks afterwards," he said.

"So, we're going from a team full of old heads to a lot of new guys coming through but a lot of the young guys like Jordi Murphy, Jack McGrath have had exposure and I don't think it feels like we're being thrown in at the deep end.

"It's fair to say that the younger generation coming through are well-prepared.

"Paddy Jackson has taken it in his stride, he's been running Ulster superbly this year and he's been sensational for us, so I think one thing that he understands he has to do is to not be shy, to be the way he is in Ulster in Irish camp.

"A few players have stood up, but we've Rory (Best), Jamie (Heaslip) and Eoin Reddan in there and those players are still the ones talking sense at the minute.

"I'm sure that as guys become more established and get a more concrete place in the squad then they'll definitely start to stand up and flourish."

On Wednesday, Henderson was part of a large group of Ireland players who took advantage of a rare day off to take a helicopter trip to go shark-diving.


"I thought it was going to be terrifying. Even going out there I thought it, but when you're there it was class," he said. "It was really a thrill-seeking kind of experience, the adrenaline rush was great. We saw seven great whites when we were in the water and when we helicoptered out to it, we could see them 40 or 50 metres from the beach. It was really good.

"I definitely wouldn't be a thrill-seeker, Paddy Jackson is one who loves it but he couldn't go because he was kicking. I thoroughly enjoyed that, it was an experience I couldn't turn down."

Looking danger in the eye and facing it head on has perhaps been the story of Henderson's career to date.

Ireland will need him to lead from the front this afternoon if they are to have any chance of beating the Springboks, and he is confident that they can do it.

"100pc, we've looked back at times we've played them in the past," he said. "Not only just recent times, but past times and their form at the World Cup, our form at the World Cup; so many different things.

"I have full confidence in the squad, the players that are in the squad have been in great form for their provinces and I don't see any reason why Ireland don't have a good enough team to win."

Today, he'll quickly find out what it's like to be swimming with sharks.

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