Henderson determined to make mark for Ulster
They say it’s an ill-wind that blows nobody any good and Ulster protege Iain Henderson can attest to that.
Stephen Ferris’s injury misfortunes have given the 20-year-old an opportunity that might otherwise not have come quite so quickly and he has made the most of his unexpected break.
With Ferris sidelined — and likely to be so for some time — Henderson has reached some very big milestones in the past couple of months.
Already this season he has made the breakthrough at full international level with two Test runs from the bench against South Africa and Argentina in November. In between those games, he lined out — and excelled — for the Irish XV which blew Fiji out of the water at Thomond Park.
As well as that he has been clocking up Ulster appearances — witness six starts, three of them in the Heineken Cup.
For a young man of 20 to have had so many big match outings in such a short time speaks volumes for his mental strength as well as his physical maturity, though at 6ft 6ins and 18st 3lbs the latter was never in doubt.
Ferris’s absence gave Henderson his chance. And now with captain Johann Muller ruled out, too, possibly for at least two months, the former Belfast Royal Academy student could find himself being asked to fill the giant South African’s vacant and sizeable boots by packing down in the second row, at least until such times as Lewis Stevenson is fit to resume.
There are other options; Neil McComb is a possibility, having played in the engine-room during Muller’s lay-off with a thumb injury sustained in the Heineken Cup victory over Glasgow at Scotstoun on October 19.
With Muller sidelined, McComb started against Edinburgh, Zebre, Treviso and Scarlets. On the downside, the last three of those just happen to have been Ulster’s poorest displays of the season to date.
Robbie Diack is a candidate, too, though as a player with very limited experience of second-row play, it is improbable a coach as canny as Ulster’s Mark Anscombe would gamble in a crucial match against fired-up opponents whose street-wise and battle-hardened locks happen to be Samu Manoa and Courtney Lawes.
Saturday night’s match is against Northampton, who will be fighting for their Heineken Cup lives, rather than a PRO12 outing against Zebre or Treviso, no harm to either of them. Diack is a six or an eight rather than a four or a five.
But Henderson’s situation is altogether different. Lock is the position in which he rose to prominence and where he has shone in the past, for Ireland Under-20s in particular.
In his two seasons at that level he produced outstanding personal performances, not least in last summer’s Junior World Championships, in which he was magnificent in the victories over tournament winners South Africa, England and France.
Significantly, when Muller was injured 10 minutes into the second half at Franklin’s Gardens on Friday night, Anscombe’s immediate response was to switch Henderson from blindside to lock, with Nick Williams coming on to fill the resultant back row vacancy.
Having entered Ulster’s Phoenix Academy straight from school, by the time the 2012 JWC came round Henderson already had made his senior debut for the province, Brian McLaughlin having blooded him from the bench against Connacht in Galway back in April.
He started in Ulster’s final PRO12 game of the season against Munster in Limerick where he scored a brilliantly-taken solo try, the intelligence of which confirmed that he has brains in addition to brawn.
His reward — in the form of a three-year contract with Ulster — came promptly. And the good times just keep getting better, for barely had the ink of his signature on than document dried than Declan Kidney called Henderson up to the Ireland squad ahead of the Guinness Series. Rapid progress.
So just how good is he? At this stage what does he have and what must he do in order to fulfill his enormous potential?
“He’s a boy still learning his trade,” said Anscombe. “He does some good things, but he’s got to understand his position a little bit more.
“But he’s growing, getting experience. He’s had three Heineken Cup games now and he’s developing with that. We know he’s got some good skills and he’s got ability. It’s the actions between actions that he needs to work on.
“He’s certainly not short of strength or aerial skills — he’s very good in the air. We know he’s one for the future, like Craig Gilroy.
“But they’re still young men — 20 and 21 — so they’ve still got a lot of rugby development to do, so we’ve got to keep their feet on the ground and help them develop their true potential.”