Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Discipline the key to success for Ulster

Iain Henderson has gone from debutant to Ulster regular and Ireland international in just 12 months
Iain Henderson has gone from debutant to Ulster regular and Ireland international in just 12 months

As Iain Henderson sits in the Lough Erne Resort, sporting a fresh facial cut from the recent training session, it seems like as good a time as any to take stock on his meteoric rise from being just another squad member on a development contract to one of Mark Anscombe's primary performers.

Twelve months ago, he had still to make his Ulster debut. Now he is about to be involved in Ulster's biggest game of the season, against Saracens, with a place in Europe's last four on offer.

Oh and, yes, not only has he broken through for Ulster but he has also now played five times for Ireland.

Not bad for a 21-year-old and while Paddy Jackson's emergence has been subjected to much glare, Henderson has quietly got on with filling the considerable gap left by Stephen Ferris's absence and bringing his high skills set and dynamic work-rate to the table while making giant strides in a very short space of time.

He wasn't even part of the extended Ulster squad who travelled to Twickenham last May and, at that stage, had made just two appearances for the senior side, though his second game – and first start – had seen him score a memorable try in the PRO12 League game at Thomond Park. Munster, though, still exacted revenge for being turned over the previous month by Ulster's stunning Heineken Cup quarter-final win.

"On the day of the Heineken Cup final we were in Belfast training and the Ulster Academy boys were all in the gym for 6.30 in the morning," is his recollection of Ulster's last visit to RFU headquarters.

He had, admittedly, been away with the squad in the lead-up to last season's European final, when they prepared to take on Leinster by going to Portugal, but Henderson had other more pressing things on his mind as Ulster's season headed towards its last game.

"At this stage last year I'd just come back from the U20's Six Nations for Ireland and I'd maybe played a match for Queen's and was really looking to get ready for the U20's World Cup.

"Yes, I was training a bit with the squad for the Heineken Cup but it was nothing major," the versatile forward, who can play flanker and second row, recalls.

Instead, his focus was on preparing to get a flight to South Africa for that underage championship where Henderson was a mainstay of the side which went on to end up in fifth place last June, the highest finish by an Irish side in the competition.

Though not a devastating ball-carrier in the mould of Ferris or Nick Williams, Henderson still possesses considerable power, lineout presence and awareness as was seen last weekend when, minutes after coming on, he scored a crucial try in the corner after lingering out on the right wing.

"It was bound to come to me the amount of time I was out there. I was thinking about going inside and then I thought I'd better hang out there," he laughs.

"I got a bit of room then Ian Madigan came across and I dotted down just in time, but it was awesome play from Ruan Pienaar who spotted that there was a gap and found me."

The score certainly made up for the disappointment of picking up a foot injury in the final Six Nations game in Rome and for the yellow card he had earlier shipped against Treviso (his third of the season after two sin-binnings in the Heineken Cup) which brought notable ire his way from a far- from-pleased Anscombe in the wake of that drawn game at Ravenhill.

"When you come back from international duty it's not about being an international it's about concentrating on getting a place and doing what you can to get on the match day squad," is Henderson's mature response to spending time running between national and provincial commitments before mentioning that he still has much to learn.

"Competition is at its height here, Robbie Diack is playing very well and so are the two second rows and then there are also Roger Wilson and Nick Williams in the back row.

"In both set-ups you are playing with world class players like the Leinster and Munster players with Ireland and, up here, you have Johann Muller, Ruan and John Afoa who are unbelievable and you can really learn stuff from them every day."

Henderson is well aware that discipline is key if Ulster are to overcome Saracens at Twickenham and that his comparative lack of experience must not be exploited through giving away needless penalties.

There is no doubt he has the big match temperament but this is still a massive test of his developing character.

"Saracens are a top class side, they will challenge your defence and they will challenge you at scrum time but we have to make sure penalties are kept to a complete minimum."

"Our set-piece is going to be vital," Henderson stresses ahead of his 16th appearance for his province.

"Against Leinster we lost a few kick-offs and some lineouts didn't go to hand.

"There were also a couple of penalties at the scrum and we know if we do the same on Saturday, Owen Farrell will kick them."

So far there has been little suggestion of his on-field steel, but mention that Ulster may be able to thrive from being underdogs in London and the fresh-faced player's generally amiable persona takes on a different hue.

"I wouldn't look into that," he says flashing you what appears to be a glare.

"I just try to learn about our opposition and go out and get the job done."

Soon he will not only be on the Twickenham turf for the first time but will also know if his star is to remain in the ascendant.

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk