'I've watched enough on the couch not to take this lightly'
Chris Henry thriving in pressure cooker of Irish back-row after long wait for a chance
CHRIS HENRY is well-established as an Ireland player now but that doesn't mean the nerves don't get to him.
If anything, the pressure drives him to perform. There are times when you listen to the Ulster openside speak about matches and wonder if he enjoys his job at all.
Perhaps, in order to understand his make-up, you have to look at the career choice he almost took when professional rugby wasn't quite working out.
Henry's late father William was an air-traffic controller and it seemed like a good fit. Anyone who has seen the film Pushing Tin will have an appreciation of the stressful nature of that job, but for the Belfast native it was a natural step.
"I knew what the job was about," he says now. "The stress and the pressure, I know in a rugby environment it's always gotten the best out of me. It's horrible at the time, but whenever you put yourself under that much pressure, everyone's watching and then you deliver. I get such a massive buzz from that."
Thankfully, he never got to find out how he'd cope in the control tower as his primary career took a turn for the better. Ireland's No 7 turned 30 last month and is making up for lost time.
Over the past two days, he has soaked up the atmosphere in Dublin city centre and watched the town turn its attention towards rugby from the team base at the Shelbourne Hotel.
"The city starts to buzz," he explains. "You see more and more Irish shirts and when you go out for a coffee, everyone says 'good luck at the weekend, lads'. It's hard to explain how amazing that feeling is. You feel sick in your stomach, but you can't wait for kick-off, to get stuck in.
"Definitely, I always try and train with a smile on my face and then when we play, to get stuck in. You're always nervous, you always have that feeling that it's a collision game and you're going to go out and put your body on the line.
"I don't think any player would say that going out to play South Africa is the same as going out to play a league match, you're always going to have that nervous energy. If you don't there's something wrong, there will be something missing from your game.
"For me, a bit of fear, the fear of letting your friends, your team-mates down, is something I always focus on. You rely on each other so much."
Those nerves drive his performance but so does the realisation that he had to patiently wait for his chance. Henry was part of plenty of squads before making the team, returning up the M1 after a few days in camp wondering what he had to do to break through.
"To be on the fringe of a squad for such a long time, going down the road to train, being part of squads but coming into camp knowing that no matter what you do you're not going to get picked. Sent home, you don't know whether you're going to get picked for Ulster that week or if you're being rested. They're tough times," he recalled.
"I look around the Ulster dressing-room and there's so many young players. I think back to when I was out at Malone RFC and Ballymena that time and I'll never take anything for granted. Every time I get an opportunity for Ulster and more so now for Ireland, I know it doesn't last and you might not get it again.
"I've watched plenty of games from my couch at home, so to be in the mix now and properly in contention for selection is an amazing feeling. It puts a bit of pressure on, but I've risen to it and I hope there's more to come."
Henry won his first cap in Brisbane back in 2010 and, over the next three seasons brought his tally to eight.
In the summer of 2013, he travelled to the United States and Canada for the Les Kiss-led two-match tour. The Ulster man was nominated for the squad's leadership group along with captain Peter O'Mahony, Devin Toner, Fergus McFadden and Isaac Boss.
The quintet worked closely with sports psychologist Enda McNulty and the management team with an eye on the next season.
Joe Schmidt was on that tour in an observational capacity, but he clearly liked what he saw. Henry started Schmidt's first Test against Samoa but tore his hamstring after 34 minutes. He had to watch the remaining November Tests, but by February he was fit again and ready to take advantage of Sean O'Brien's misfortune.
This evening will be his eighth Test in a row and he has built a strong bond with back-row partners in crime, Peter O'Mahony and Jamie Heaslip.
"I've been around this group a long time and I very much feel part of the team," he says. "I've a lot of faith in the guys around me and hopefully my performances have created a trust in them as well, that they trust me.
"I focus on doing the grunt-work, on leaving them free to carry. I'm very much trying to get stuck in and joining Pete in being a bit of a nuisance.
"It's nice that we've had a run of games with each other, every time I go out and play with them I can take a lot of belief from them. Not just those two, I've a lot of belief in the players we have."
It helps that the coach is a man with an eye for the so-called unseen work.
"As long as Joe's happy, I'm happy. He notices everything, even in training if you don't hit the right angle at a ruck, lose your feet in a collision, he will pick it up," Henry says.
"I think my game, under his coaching, has improved massively. The small details in the rucking focus, there's plenty more to go but I know what he expects of me and if I can deliver on that then hopefully it's enough."
Tonight, he faces South Africa for the second time in his career. Two seasons ago, he joined Heaslip and O'Mahony in the back-row for that ugly defeat that kicked-off Declan Kidney's final season.
If the 'Boks are familiar, it's because their influence is felt keenly at Ravenhill. Henry has been sharing a dressing-room with a host of men from the high veld and knows what they're about.
"Johann Muller, as a leader, has probably had the biggest influence on me," he says of the now departed captain. "He had a big impact, he had a lot of injuries but you knew he had that mentality, that South African nature where he just wanted to hit things, smash things.
"It's their mental toughness, they pride themselves on their scrum, maul and winning collisions. Even in the last two years, I think they have evolved as a team to have players who can pass the ball around."
That means Ireland will have to be alert to the threats, but there is a confidence about the camp this week that belies the injury fears.
"I think our strength is very much in our collective," Henry concludes, "in how we come together as a team in our defensive structures, how we attack the ball, create phases. It's about our team, knowing what the person beside you will do and what they need you to do."
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