Friday 20 September 2019

Neil Francis: 'Joe Schmidt needs a fit Henderson despite first-rate second-rows'

Thumb operation shows Ulster priorities come a distant second behind Ireland's

Iain Henderson will be a huge loss to Ulster but Ireland should benefit in the long run. Photo: Sportsfile
Iain Henderson will be a huge loss to Ulster but Ireland should benefit in the long run. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Skorpions Nightclub is an establishment on the island of Ios in the Cyclades Archipelago off the coast of Greece. The nightclub is situated on the side of a cliff and a wall forms a boundary on both sides of the club. I managed to fall off the wall one night - the drop was in excess of 100 feet but the fact that I am able to recount the story tells you that I survived.

Some grassy outcrops and favourable gradients helped a bit. When I reached the bottom, I figured that a climb back up wasn't worth the effort and snuggled down for the night with a nervous but cooperative cormorant.

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The next day I was woken by a Norwegian couple who were prodding me with a stick and were startled when 'the corpse' got up and thanked them and walked off. A few cuts and bruises, sore ribs and a very sore thumb. I could put up with the pain or fly home to Dublin. Beer doesn't taste any less appealing when you drink it with your left hand so I stayed.

Strapped

Ten days later, X-rays in Dublin confirmed that I had damaged ligaments and a small fracture of my thumb. The rugby season was about to start - I had a decision to make, either undergo a small procedure or let it heal which it should have done in a few months ... and that is why every game I played from the age of 22 until retirement I had my right thumb strapped. Every Test, every practice.

I must have gone through miles of adhesive surgical tape. I should have got it pinned. Iain Henderson did some damage to his thumb - the ligament holding the thumb can be devilishly tricky to get right and sometimes it is better to pin it rather than play a wait-and-see.

You could say that losing Henderson is a blow because he will be gone for 10 weeks which effectively rules him out of the Six Nations but if Ulster perform in his absence against Racing (home) and Leicester (away) then Ulster will be involved at the quarter-final stage - much harder to do it without Henderson. The Racing 92 square-up in Belfast against Leonie Nakawara would have been worth the admission money alone. Ireland will miss Henderson too but are better served with quality locks than Ulster are.

We don't know when he picked up the injury - whether he has had it for a while or whether he picked it up in the return match in Belfast against the Scarlets last week. Henderson played the full 80 and had 13 tackles and 13 carries in a meaty performance. The Ulster lock had huge games in the back-to-back which went some way to demonstrating that he was back to his best after a subdued performance in the Argentina game where he shipped most of the blame for an inconsistent lineout. Henderson only made the bench for the All Blacks game but came on for Devin Toner in the last quarter.

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Henderson is a serious proposition as a second-row. He missed his chance to be recognised as one of the best if not the best on the 2017 Lions tour of New Zealand. I think Wazza had it in his mind that Alun Wyn Jones was playing in the Test side no matter what. Wyn Jones has a bit of steel about his game and winning Test history but he lived on his reputation in New Zealand.

Maro Itoje was eventually picked to start and rightly so but Henderson never really go the chance to express himself. He was a colossus against the Hurricanes in Wellington between the first and second Tests. If anyone ever put their hand up for Test selection, Henderson did. Wazza went for Courtney Lawes, the penalty machine, on the bench. Once the Lions won the second Test, that was that! Henderson is still Lions Test calibre.

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Iain Henderson’s charge leaves Hurricanes’ Brad Shields on the ground in Wellington yesterday. Photo: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

What do modern Test second-rows do to earn their stripes these days? Win lineout ball! That is a fact! In Test rugby if you don't win first-phase ball, well then you are going nowhere. Good clean ball, no slops. OK, but how good do you have to be these days?

I watched England play against Japan in Twickenham in November and marvelled at the efficiency of the visitors' lineout. The Japanese won 10 out of their 11 lineouts. How difficult can it be these days to win a lineout with lifters and systems in place? How much of a premium do you put on having a brilliant lineout operator?

James Ryan has redefined just what a modern second-row forward should be able to do. You are in luck if you have a big rangy athletic second-row with pace who will always get you across the gain line when he carries.

We marvel at Ryan who always seems to make an extra metre or three through the contact area. Henderson has the same sort of driving ability. Second-rows carry!

Second-rows tackle too - Ryan and Henderson always have outstanding tackle figures in the post-match stats. They rarely miss one either - a signature skill when you are over 6 feet 6 inches. Tall men were not made to tackle (well, I wasn't). Devin Toner always comes in with exceptional figures in this area. Tadhg Beirne too! All the Irish second-rows in the squad clear out rucks with real aggression.

So what distinguishes one from the other? Henderson has all the pre-requisites required but his ability to strip tackle and poach are really good. Beirne too. His passing and ball-retention in contact are world class.

In short, Ireland cannot do without him in Japan. That is why the news of his surgery on the Monday after the Scarlets game brought Japan into sharper focus. The orthopaedic surgeon obviously had his input but Joe knew what and who he needs in nine months' time. Ulster's need in the crucial fifth and sixth matches in the pool are inconsequential. Ireland's requirement for Henderson's presence in the Six Nations is also secondary.

Henderson may or may not have required surgery - but Joe wants all his vital men in Japan playing at their best with no niggles. There are four second-rows going to Japan - Ryan, Toner, Beirne and Henderson. Schmidt doesn't want any of them thumbing a lift there! It is clear that Japan is where it's at.

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