Monday 24 June 2019

'Useful' Henderson forces his way into starting contention

Iain Henderson, Ireland, is tackled by Jamie Roberts, left, and Justin Tipuric, Wales, on his way to scoring his side's first try of the game
Iain Henderson, Ireland, is tackled by Jamie Roberts, left, and Justin Tipuric, Wales, on his way to scoring his side's first try of the game
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

It began as a day for Irish supporters to laud one talismanic second-row on what was his final international appearance on home soil and it finished with another giving a glimpse into what the future holds.

Paul O'Connell's rather muted exit at the full-time whistle was hardly all that surprising given his character but then again, for anyone who has tracked Iain Henderson's progress over the last few years, neither was his barnstorming display.

O'Connell will leave an almost irreplaceable void when he retires after the World Cup and although Henderson is a different kind of player, there is cause for optimism.

In a game that Ireland were outdone at the breakdown, largely due to a supreme performance by Justin Tipuric, Henderson was one of the shining lights in what was an otherwise dull and below-par team showing.

Typified by a monstrous ruck clean-out in the 13th minute, the aggression that Henderson brings to the breakdown is something that Ireland will certainly need in the World Cup but by his own admission, he still has plenty to work on - particularly his discipline.

That Ulster see Henderson primarily as a blindside flanker muddies the waters slightly but Joe Schmidt has always viewed the 23-year-old powerhouse as an international second-row.

Henderson's place in the final 31-man squad was assured even before Saturday's defeat but with Devin Toner in the stands watching on, one couldn't help but wonder what was going through his head as his place in the starting XV became under an even bigger threat.

O'Connell and Henderson's partnership may be in its infancy compared to Toner (who has done little to be dropped) but there was enough to suggest that Schmidt may look at the pair as a realistic option in the coming weeks.

"He was really good," the New Zealander said of Henderson's performance. "His ability to get up and into the line was very good. He obviously carried very strongly to get the try, earlier on as well to get through the line and give us a bit of momentum.

"He's a big strong athlete and that makes him really useful to us. He's contributed massively to us in the last two years in some of the really good performances we've had.

"He's been pushing for a while. He had a fantastic opportunity and it's pretty hard to say he didn't step up and take it."

For Henderson, it's a case of getting as much game time as possible regardless of what position he is selected in and playing alongside O'Connell certainly enhanced his learning of the second-row.


While Toner remains a reliable lineout operator, Schmidt made it clear that the Ulster player is edging his way ever closer to a place in the starting XV.

Assessing his partnership with O'Connell after the defeat, Henderson said:

"I think obviously Paul is a good grafter. He does an awful lot of the unseen work which leaves nice spaces for me if I end up carrying outside him.

"Some people might say I don't do enough of the nitty-gritty work, he might put himself around a bit more and cover that for me and I can hopefully carry a bit more for both of us.

"I think any professional sports person can learn from what Paul O'Connell does, not only on the field but everything he does off the field, in training and everything down from nutrition to reviewing other teams.

"Everyone could learn from him. He's just absolutely amazing and playing with him (in the second-row) was absolutely fantastic."

Try as they might, four Welsh defenders couldn't deny Henderson his first try in a green jersey but given the eventual result and the fact that his performance wasn't faultless, he knows that plenty of work needs to be done at Carton House this week.

"I gave away a few penalties, a few bad cleans," he admitted.

"I was obviously happy I got the try and I was happy with the few carries I got as well but if you look at any game you can pick out faults in any player's performance.

"I'll be talking with the forward coaches and Joe in the coming days and I'm sure they'll have stuff for me to work on as well.

"I think everyone can always swot more. I think that's what the best players would say - you can never do enough research on your opposition, yourself or your team-mates.

"You can review games, keep going and every time you review it again, you'll see something different. The more work you do the more prepared you will be.

"It was obviously everyone's last chance to put their best foot forward and I felt I did what I could out there.

"I'm very disappointed with the result, however I feel like I gave myself a better opportunity of being selected for the final squad."

Schmidt has repeatedly spoke of the value in having versatility in his squad and Henderson typifies that but he wasn't shy in saying that it can be difficult to mentally prepare for games when you don't know what position you're going to be playing in.

"It is difficult when you are not quite sure where you could be coming on," Henderson conceded.

"You could be coming on for Sean O'Brien and he is playing eight, then Peter O'Mahony goes to eight and you play six. Or else Donnacha Ryan goes to six.

"There are a number of different positions you could have to cover so getting that detail and patterns done during the week is the most difficult part.


"I played all at six at the end of last season and 40 minutes at second-row there two or three weeks ago so I haven't played an awful lot of second-row in recent games.

"But again it is a conditioning thing. Once you get your legs and your lungs used to it and get those metres under the belt you start to feel more comfortable and better performances will come from that.

"It's still definitely about minutes for me, including Ulster as well as Ireland. The more game-time for me, I think the better I will play, irrespective of position.

"I see myself as a versatile forward who can play back-row or second-row. I'll happily put my hand up and play both."

Schmidt will announce his squad at lunchtime tomorrow by which time each player will know where they stand. Henderson's main concern now is to continue his rapid ascension.

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