Wednesday 18 September 2019

Cian Tracey: 'Henderson must deliver on promise in Toner's absence'

Iain Henderson. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Iain Henderson. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Of all the lasting images from the many big moments that Iain Henderson has come up with in an Ireland jersey, few stand out as much as the monstrous carry he made against South Africa two years ago.

Faced with Eben Etzebeth, who was coming flying off the defensive line, Henderson (below) took one look at the powerhouse Springboks lock and steamrolled him in emphatic style.

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Since making his international debut in 2012, we can come to expect that kind of brute force, both in attack and defence, from a player who can mix it with the best in the world.

Henderson has perfected the art of the choke tackle as well as being a potent threat when stripping the ball from the opposition in contact.

Those huge plays will always be expected of him, but his role has slowly changed in recent years and even more so now in the absence of Devin Toner.

Presence

Replacing someone with Toner's towering lineout presence is almost impossible and while Ireland's set-piece will have a very different look to it in Japan, it is up to Henderson to help fill that considerable void.

The 27-year-old has suddenly become the senior lock in the squad, and with that comes an important responsibility.

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So much is already expected of James Ryan without landing lineout calling on top of him just yet.

The entire island is expecting Ryan to announce his arrival on the world stage, but this is a stage that is also made for Henderson to go and prove that he can handle the pressure of shouldering that extra burden.

It was interesting to note how Joe Schmidt described Henderson when he ran through his squad selection in Monday's short in-house video.

"Iain Henderson, who has promised so much, has performed at times incredibly well for us and we're going to need him to very much put his best foot forward."

"Promised so much" is a pretty apt way to describe Henderson's career to date. He has delivered huge moments in spades, but at times has lacked the consistency to dominate big games across a prolonged period.

Injuries have played a major role in that, as his game-time was repeatedly disrupted, while he was also regularly shifted from the back-row to the engine room.

Tadhg Beirne has become that versatile option, with Schmidt now seeing Henderson as a lock. That would perhaps explain why he is looking leaner than ever after a gruelling pre-season.

Taking on the role of lineout caller at Ulster has also helped to accelerate Henderson's development as a lock.

He has fulfilled the same role with Ireland several times, but, as he found out at Twickenham last month, it is a very different story doing it against a world-class international outfit.

Following that horror show against England, it was Devin Toner who led the meeting about why the set-piece faltered so badly.

With the likes of Rory Best and Peter O'Mahony in situ, there are some very experienced lineout technicians, but Schmidt wants someone to take over the mantle as Ireland's new caller.

Prior to last weekend's win over Wales, Schmidt suggested that it might be a shared responsibility, yet it appeared that Henderson was the one calling the shots.

Against a weak Welsh side, Ireland got away with some fairly straightforward throws, but that will not be the case on Saturday, with Alun Wyn Jones and Co set to return to the team.

"I think it's something that Simon (Easterby) will sort through with the players," Schmidt said yesterday, when asked who the new lineout caller would be.

"It may be shared. It may be that one person is given the primary role and then other guys will chip in during the game, if they feel there is a little bit of space somewhere or there is an opportunity somewhere."

That will always be the case in any given game, but having spent the last seven years learning from Paul O'Connell and Toner, two of the country's finest callers, Henderson will feel that this is his time to step up to the mark.

Further down the line, one imagines that Ryan will take over the role. Until then, it is up to Henderson to deliver on the promise that Schmidt referred to.

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