Monday 22 January 2018

'Llama' Henderson groomed to be O'Connell's hair apparent

Iain Henderson lets his hair 'grow however and whenever it wants, then I cut it out'
Iain Henderson lets his hair 'grow however and whenever it wants, then I cut it out'
David Kelly

David Kelly

Takes one to know one, they say. Back in 2012, when Donncha O'Callaghan first clapped eyes on the hirsute, imposing figure of Iain Henderson freighting a bowl of cereal to his first breakfast in an Ireland camp, only one word came to mind.

"Llama!" cried the noted Munster wit and owner of the occasional shaggy mop top. When Henderson grows his hair, he lets nature take its course.

"I'd probably go in 16-month cycles," the 23-year-old explains. "I'd just let it grow however and whenever it wants, then after that I'd cut it out."

A cursory swipe of the web will reveal a gallery of repeatedly altered images that mark him down more as a fifth Beatle than a feisty forward.

This week, he appears to us clipped and kempt; now, clearly, is the time for post-shearing progression; unlike Samson, this man's powers will not be becalmed.

Declan Kidney had the foresight even before the 2012 November series to call up the then unchristened Llama just seven months after he made his senior debut for Ulster.

Even though only 20, he was already marked down for great things; a nine-minute cameo in defeat to South Africa engaged him in the international game for the first time and an immediate, imposing rumble reflected his thirst for the fray.


He was in Rome two seasons ago - yes, THAT game -as Kidney's reign subsided amidst scenes reminiscent of M*A*S*H; Henderson replaced a replacement and forced a fellow flanker to the wing.

"I came on for Luke Fitzgerald. I fancied my pace on the wing against most people. But Peter O'Mahony was a little more fresh with the wing calls and the starting plays that Declan had in mind. . ."

Kidney left but Henderson struggled to make an impression on the new man as successive injuries, to toe and hip, thieved him of two successive November windows and huge chunks of playing time; even when fit, until recently Ulster had enough bodies to block his progress.

"It's been up and down, a whirlwind last year sitting behind Dan Tuohy and Johann Muller then getting a few games in the back-row here and there," he says. "To get game-time is key - there is such competition between me and Dan and Franco van der Merwe and Robbie Diack.

"Then you have Roger Wilson and Nick Williams in the back-row. There's massive competition so any game-time is good for me, especially down here."

Injuries have hindered him but helped him too; it is not clear whether Joe Schmidt may have preferred the familiarity of the otherwise concussed Mike McCarthy this weekend; or indeed, Munster man Dave Foley.

Hence, last week's Wolfhounds outing in Irish Independent Park freighted a more intense scrutiny than may have otherwise applied; Henderson is not the only figure to have clearly advanced his cause in Cork.

"It was only Iain's second or third game back, he was only scheduled to play 50-60 minutes but with Mike coming off, he trudged around for nearly the full 80 minutes," smiles Schmidt good-naturedly.

"His flexibility is massive and we're confident that he can bring a big change-up off the bench."

"I'd played in that fixture for the last two seasons and ended up in the Six Nations squads both times," Henderson appreciates.

"So a lot of players realised, especially with the injuries, that this was an opportunity to put their hand up, because this might be the last game they play before there's an injury and then they have to slot in straight away.

"So it was made clear to us it wasn't just any old run-out game, it was a real pre-Test occasion to the Six Nations. And a lot of decisions would be made based on how players went in that game."

Now, with obvious concerns about Sean O'Brien's fitness, Henderson's versatility - he can play all back five positions if required - is a vital attribute for Schmidt's squad.

Even if, in the long-term, he would like to slowly remove the label.

"With Dan gone, there's three who a month ago would have been putting up their hand for selection for this bench, while myself, coming back from injury, I may have been playing for the Ravens against Connacht Eagles this week," he says.

"So I have a good bit to do but I took the opportunity against Leicester and after a good 80 last week for the Wolfhounds, I'm ready to make an impact for the bench.

"I'd prefer to slot into one position. I prefer playing back-row. I'm comfortable at second-row. I played there most of last season for Ulster and then against Argentina, I really enjoyed it.

"But you do have to be in one position if you want to nail down a starting slot. But then if your province needs you in one position and your country needs you in another. . . listen, ultimately I'd like to be stating in one position for both in every game possible. And uninjured!"

O'Callaghan may have christened him Llama but Brian O'Driscoll recently dished out some slagging too, saying that the Craigavon giant was, shall we say, a tad tardy in absorbing Schmidt's myriad commands.

"He didn't do that many lineout drills with us as far as I recall!" Henderson responds sharply. "Ah listen in terms of covering back-row, I have to catch up on an awful lot. It takes me a while to get in tune, I guess!"

There's a lot to enthuse about Henderson; humour is a key asset, so too his preference for news delivery in print rather than on the internet.

A perfect confection of old school values and contemporary standards; there are many similarities between him and another second-row, Paul O'Connell, whom he sooner, rather than later, will succeed.

Many similarities except, perhaps, in the grooming department.

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