Belfast Telegraph

Returning star Henderson ready to escape injury 'prison'

By Michael Sadlier

With the hair still being worn long as it erupts from under his beanie, and the beard more than a little overgrown, it looks as if Iain Henderson might have recently returned from several months somewhere beyond the reach of civilisation.

In many respects that is exactly what has happened.

It's now just over seven months since he last played and the recovery from his hip operation, followed by the hard yards of rehabbing, have been akin to a form of solitary confinement with his appearance more than suggesting that he has simply been locked away somewhere and kept out of sight.

But not now. He is emerging into the light again to take his place in the Ulster side at blindside flanker as they close out their dismal European season tonight by hosting Leicester Tigers at the Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 5.30pm and live on Sky Sports).

"I'm itching to get out again after my seven month pre-season," the 22-year-old laughs before adding to the notion that he has, in actual fact, simply been incarcerated since the start of the season.

"The gym is like a prison and I can't wait to get out on the pitch and play some rugby again," Henderson says.

With being named in Joe Schmidt's extended Six Nations squad a huge positive with also the distinct possibility of him togging out next week for the Ireland Wolfhounds against England Saxons, down in Cork, being all part of what he now badly needs, namely game-time, he looks like he's going to have his wish granted.

And when asked when he last played before going under the knife at the start of the season, he has no trouble coming up with the exact date.

"The last match I played was June 14 and that was the final match of the Argentina tour (with Ireland)," Henderson states before explaining that his hip then began to interfere with his pre-season and that a decision about it had to be made in relation to the primary focus of his national ambitions looking down the track at the Six Nations and World Cup.

"It was a frustrating pre-season, the hip just didn't get right and I went to see a specialist over in Coventry and he said he needed to operate so I took the operation," Henderson said of the surgery he underwent in September.

"I got a labrum (cartilage in the hip) repair and some bone shaved off at the top of my hip joint. It was keyhole surgery and there were no complications with it.

"It maybe could have been put off but it would have had to be done at some stage and the way I looked at it there were three main campaigns coming up, the first being the autumn series, then the Six Nations and then the World Cup.

"It could have got worse if I'd played in the autumns and if it happened now or during the Six Nations it would have put me out for another three or four months," he explained

He would have been back for Ulster before now but for a troublesome hamstring which got in the way over the festive period and with Chris Henry and Nick Williams on the sidelines, his continued absence - Henderson can play just as effectively in the back row where he is tonight as he can at lock - has certainly been badly missed.

So, this is a good time for the former Belfast Royal Academy pupil to arrive back for an Ulster side still struggling to deal with an injury crisis that has barely abated this season and which can be attributed with reasonable accuracy to the wobbly form which has afflicted them since the beginning of December.

With the 12-times capped Ireland player back in the side for tonight, Ulster can at least expect some extra physicality and ball-carrying ability as they seek to end their disappointing European season with a win.

A success would not only begin to atone for last Saturday's record defeat at Toulon but it would also give them momentum going into the PRO12 which returns on, wait for it, Friday February 13 when Treviso visit Belfast.

"We never want to lose here, it's our fortress and we never like to see a team come here and beat us," says Henderson.

"We need to bounce back and especially so playing at home.

"Leicester are always such a big confrontational team and I think it is a match where we can front up and dominate them which we have done in the past," he adds while reflecting on last season's European double success over the Tigers.

"That (putting it up to the Tigers) will give us huge confidence. Obviously not for Europe, it has gone now, but for the next few league games.

"A couple of bonus point wins puts us right back in contention and there is no reason why we can't get them in the next few matches," he maintains though he may well be absent on national duty over the course of the Six Nations, during which Ulster have four games.

"Given that Europe has gone the league is still alive and that is what we are going after and we're looking to win it," he maintains.

Mention is made of the record tanking at Toulon - Henderson had been on water-boy duties recently but this one was left to Andrew Trimble as there was an exam to study for - and the fact that just as he comes back, his housemate Stuart Olding ("One in and one out," he jokes) has joined the list of walking wounded.

And with that he wanders off safe in the knowledge that his own lengthy spell of solitary confinement is practically at an end.

He might even celebrate by opting for a haircut and shave.

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