‘We’re not a feeder club for Leinster’ – Iain Henderson
Last Friday night, the Ulster team that beat Harlequins contained just five players who were raised in the province.
One of them was the star of the show. Captain Iain Henderson has never been so important to the club. Just like Peter O’Mahony and Munster, there is a real need for the IRFU to keep the 25-year-old in Belfast.
A deal is not yet done, but yesterday Henderson indicated that he wants to stay despite interest from abroad.
Losing him would be a seismic blow to Ulster in an already difficult season.
The northern province are bracing themselves for the court case involving two of their home-grown Ireland stars, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, after Christmas and have a major cloud hanging over one of their three Lions in Jared Payne who has not yet played this season due to headaches.
They have rarely been able to call on Ireland skipper Rory Best due to injury, as Les Kiss and his revamped coaching staff try to regenerate the team.
Part of that regeneration has come from outside and with a premium on Irish-qualified players, Ulster have had to look south.
Dubliners John Cooney, Alan O’Connor and Nick Timoney have all become starters, while Jordi Murphy and Marty Moore are on the way. Between the academy and the wider squad, Dave Shanahan, Eric O’Sullivan, Tom O’Toole, Greg Jones and Jack Regan – son of Offaly legend Daithi – all hail from Leinster.
It is all part of the IRFU’s plan to get as many Irish-qualified players playing regularly as possible and as long as it strengthens the province fans don’t seem to mind, but the challenge is to retain the province’s unique identity while welcoming the southern influx.
“That’s something we’ve spoken about before, trying to let the boys who come up know what we’re about, how we have our own identity, we’re not just a feeder club for Leinster who’ll pick up the scraps,” Henderson says.
“The boys who have come up have really related to it. John (Cooney) is really enjoying himself, and a prime example is Alan O’Connor. He didn’t get the opportunities that he should have got at Leinster but he’s been here for three or four seasons and I think he’s a top-quality player for us.
“I think he is someone who really buys into it. Al would probably call himself an Ulster man now. Nick Timoney is another who maybe didn’t get the opportunity he deserved – maybe not deserved, but because Leinster have such a backlog of top-quality back-rows, the opportunities aren’t there.
“In the pro game, and even through the Academy systems they’re so professional now, the opportunity for young players are more and more. Players out of school have already been in gym programmes, already developed their rugby skills. Leinster have so many top-quality schools and performers, and the level of the Senior Cup down here, you’re going to have a much bigger player basket to choose from.
“Nick has come up to us and, again, put in two or three years’ hard work. He wasn’t ready from the start but he was well on his way to being a really good back-row. At Ulster, we are quite proud of our values and our fan base and the facilities we have got. Also, the history behind the club.
“What we have been trying to do with the players coming from the other provinces is … Tommy Bowe heads up a committee that once or twice a month has past players coming in and getting them back in and involved around the squad.
“They have a chat with the younger lads and just give them a feel for what it means for other local players, what it meant for them to play for Ulster and how proud they were to wear the white jersey, building all that around our club ethos and trying to work hard for each other, being a collective as opposed to just a group of players.”
As a local boy, produced by the schools system, the Ireland second-row is a crucial part of retaining that culture even if he accepts that movement between the provinces is just a reality of the modern game.
“It’s probably breaking down (barriers) and to do with the levels of professionalism increasing,” he says.
“As they have increased maybe people lose a bit of ego about who they play for so they are not as stubborn and realise that for their own career it may be a lot better to move somewhere else, even though it may be one of their biggest rival clubs.”
And, while he has previously spoken of the interest from abroad he has received, he wants to remain at his home province.
“Hopefully nowhere, all being well,” he says when asked where he’s off to.
“It has been difficult because of the run of games that we’ve had and how intense training has been.
“The two European games were so close together and just off the back of the autumn (Tests) so there has been a bit of a delay with being back up and down to Dublin. Look, we’ll see hopefully over the next number of weeks and see what happens.
“Currently, I don’t have a date in my head (as a deadline) but sooner I have it done then the sooner it isn’t on my plate as something to deal with.
“I’m quite laid-back. My agent will worry about all that and that takes a massive weight off my shoulders so it doesn’t take away from my rugby performances. I’ll let him sort that out.
“That’s what he’s probably there for, isn’t it?”
As if he didn’t have enough irons in the fire, Henderson spent 36 hours in Ireland camp on Monday and Tuesday and was yesterday speaking at a Kingspan media event in Dublin en route back home.
He finished November as Ireland’s No 1 second-row as Joe Schmidt dropped Devin Toner in favour of newcomer James Ryan and he is nailed on to start the Six Nations as long as he’s fit.
Camp, he said, was kept light enough as the players began thinking about spring possibilities and the mood was enhanced by the fact that all four provinces won their pre-Christmas back-to-backs.
“You could tell everyone was in good mood,” he says. “Prior to the September camp we had just lost to Leinster so you could tell the Ulster boys were a bit p***ed off.
“But you go down there and it is a good feeling to go down there after a couple of especially good wins over an inter-pro rival but in camp you tell there was a good buzz about the way they had played and it put a real positive spin on it.
“It definitely is (difficult to switch focus) but I think Irish coaches are very aware of that so there is not a huge amount of probing into trying to shift everyone’s attention back to the set-piece or set-plays.
“It is very much kind of game play we were into and not a huge amount of mental stress although there is a huge amount of application that you have to do over a short period of time.
“The mood in camp was great.”
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