Sunday 16 June 2019

Iain Henderson making the most of being the right man in the right place

It took a while for Iain Henderson to realise he has what it takes to make this World Cup memorable

Iain Henderson: 'I was playing against players who were on Ulster schools, Irish schools even, and personally I thought I was better than them'
Iain Henderson: 'I was playing against players who were on Ulster schools, Irish schools even, and personally I thought I was better than them'
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If you recall the opening of the Aviva Stadium in 2010, you'll remember that the game that lifted the curtain on the new venue was a bit of a makey-uppy.

Two combined under 20 selections, Ulster and Leinster against Munster and Connacht. Of the 46 lads used that afternoon there are a few names that jump out. At the time, Luke Marshall was the one making headlines, but elsewhere in the mix were Paddy Jackson, Craig Gilroy, Marty Moore and one Iain Henderson.

The game was all about the occasion so nobody was too fussed about who was who, and certainly we weren't booting up laptops to write the story of a young Ulster second-row with all the tools to make it in the trade. At that point in his development he wouldn't have been too sure where to start looking for the same tools.

Jonny Bell, now joined at the hip with David Humphreys in Gloucester, was coaching the Ulster/Leinster combo that day. He asked his opposite number Colin McEntee to throw his eye over Henderson and give an opinion. "Collie said that his lineout game was very raw, his game sense needed to be developed, and that he was a bit all over the place - but that he definitely had something about him," Bell recalls. "I remember him as someone who played better than he trained. I used to call him the silent assassin: very quiet off the field and then a bit of personality change when he'd go into a game."

A couple of weeks ago at the same venue where Henderson had announced himself so quietly five years ago, he delivered a tour de force against Wales. Those who had been unsure about him left the ground this time with the certainty that they had watched an international player of real quality. Thirteen tackles, 11 carries and 35 rucks hit - at any time of the season they would be very impressive stats. For August, and his second start of the Guinness series, it was terrific. And light years ahead of his walkabout in 2010.

"I've seen Collie a good few times since and it's probably not too far off where I was," Henderson says of McEntee's assessment back then. "I'd never really received any high level of coaching before. I could carry ball and make hard tackles - I think that's probably all I had at that stage coming through playing schools rugby. Probably players were relying on me to make the big carries and not doing a lot else. I wasn't that talented a rugby player as such, but that came I suppose with coaching in the seasons afterwards."

Iain Henderson learned his rugby in Belfast Royal Academy. He looks back on his time in the school with great fondness. "It was one of the best times of my life. I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed school. And I still try and get back as much as possible." It was where his dad had gone, and his two older brothers. On the rugby scale, BRA would not be the biggest hitters in that neck of the woods, but Henderson was lucky enough to land in the middle of a decent crop - of whom he was one of the go-to men.

All through his schooldays they picked him in the back-row, from where he carried lots of ball and mowed down plenty of tacklers. A bright spark with a head for figures - he likes to get onto Paul O'Connell when the lineout calls don't quite add up - Henderson spent more time thinking about the academic side of life than what happened on the rugby field. He just played. And did it fairly well.

Maybe it was the easy-going attitude, but despite getting to an Ulster schools final and being one of the key figures in that run, none of the Ulster schools selectors ever knocked on his door. And if the province weren't interested, neither were the national selectors. So how come this big, powerful back-rower aroused no interest?

"I'm not sure, I was asking the same questions as well," he says. "I was playing against players who were on Ulster schools, Irish schools even, and personally I thought I was better than them. Maybe I was not as interested as they were; maybe I didn't train as hard, or whatnot. They got the nod ahead of me. At the time it was more of an incentive when I was playing against them, to show what I could do. We generally came out on top. Then after school with the Ulster under 20s I leapfrogged them, and then onto Irish 20s."

That involvement with the Ulster 20s was not something he had expected. Like a lot of school leavers in Northern Ireland, he looked to Scotland for the next step in his education, and accepted an offer from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh to do actuarial studies. Then Jonny Bell rang and suggested going to Queen's instead, and joining the Ulster Academy. Fortuitous phone call that.

Once on the ladder, Henderson climbed quickly. Two seasons unfolded with the Ireland under 20s, and it wasn't long after the second of those, when he had been one of Ireland's best forwards at the World Cup in South Africa, that he found himself making his Ulster senior debut, off the bench against Connacht. Only then was the light coming on that he could turn this into a career.

"I was over the moon at the time, and it felt like it came around so fast. The likes of myself and Jacko (Paddy Jackson) and Craig Gilroy, we were very fortunate in terms of positions: Ulster needing a new 10; Craig getting a brilliant opportunity and played superbly on the wing whereas if you look at the likes of Chris Henry, he had loads of brilliant players ahead of him and he didn't get his first cap for Ulster until maybe 24 I think, which is another year down the line for me yet. So had Stephen Ferris been fit, or had Ulster gone and signed a few more second-rows, I might still be trying to break into that squad. I think a lot of it is down to getting your opportunities and being able to take them as firmly as you can. It was after that I thought I might be able to make something of this.

"What happened with me was more I needed someone to let me know what was going on. I'd be the sort of person who'd just float around in the clouds and just go along with everything. I needed someone to let me know what needed to get done. That was Chris Henry. Definitely, he took me under his wing. Even in terms of the whole social scene at Ulster. It's always good if you have one of the older guys - someone you can go and have a chat with or pal about with or go for lunch with. Especially for me when I was playing six then. He was another back-row at the time who could give me a heads up on what I needed to do."

He still needs a bit of guidance, he says. Sleep is something that comes easily to him, which in the Ireland camp can be a dangerous friend if a meeting is around the corner and there's preparation to be done. You'd imagine Joe Schmidt has been on his case a bit about getting his head out of the clouds?

"Ireland have definitely benefited from the pressure that he's been putting onto the squad," Henderson says. "However, I think it's definitely key that when you do get back to your room you switch off. And that's something I'm very good at! I have a lie down and a nap wherever I want. Like today, after dinner I'll go back to bed again. It can be stressful if you're not prepared going into a meeting or into training, if you're unaware of what's happening in a play Joe will have no problem calling you out in front of everyone - 'What's going on here, why don't you know what you're doing?' - so you need to be prepared and have a good idea of what's going on. Similarly though I feel you can't be panicking about it the whole time. You'll tire yourself out and you won't sleep as well. I keep that (concentration) for when I'm doing my bits of study for games. I'll worry about it then. After that I try and get rid of any excess stress."

So far he has been getting it just right, to the point where he now gives Schmidt great options at six or in the second-row - in the starting team. Along with Dave Kearney he has been the hottest property in the warm-up series. The World Cup is something that has him transfixed, though his memories of previous events is a bit hazy.

"It felt like I was a child watching Ireland beat Australia four years ago," he says. He was 19. "I remember Ferris picking up (Will) Genia - flip me! And then the quarters against Wales. The next year when I was called down to the squad in Dublin I remember there was a bit of chat about Wales, and the following Six Nations they were still chatting about the Welsh and trying to get one over on them. Apart from that, World Cup memories are a bit scarce for me. Maybe I'll remember this one in a few years?"

Maybe he will. And hopefully for all the right reasons.

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