Henry: Ulster can beat the best
Published 05/04/2013 | 08:00
There has been a marked change in the goals and aspirations of Ulster players in recent times. No-one displays that more than Chris Henry.
Not so long ago, he and his colleagues would have been delighted just to get out of their Heineken Cup group. That in itself would have been considered an achievement.
It was understandable, given that from 2000 to 2010 successive Ulster teams had tried and failed to reach the knock-out stages. Like poor relations they watched on year after year as their better-placed cousins from Leinster and Munster dined at the top table as perennial members of Europe's top eight.
Finally, in 2011, Ulster qualified for the quarter-finals as one of the best two runners-up in the group stages. They lost their quarter-final to Northampton Saints in Milton Keynes, but their duck was broken.
In 2012, having qualified via the same runner-up channel, they made it all the way to the final at Twickenham. There, Leinster proved too good for them. Still, a place in the final was proof of progress.
Now, for the third year in a row, they are in the last eight – not as runners-up, this time, but as the winners of Pool 4. Indeed, they were the first of this season's qualifiers.
But such are the demands members of the class of 2013 make of themselves that they will not be satisfied until they have lifted a trophy. They are rather more ambitious than before, this lot.
Henry expresses that hunger to succeed better than anyone. An Ulsterman born and bred, he was accustomed to watching Munster and Leinster triumph and wondering if the roles might ever be reversed.
Perhaps that time has come. Tomorrow night Leinster – last season's champions of Europe following their rout of Ulster in the final – will be in action against London Wasps. But that is in the consolation Amlin Challenge Cup, rugby's Europa League equivalent, after Joe Schmidt's side failed to make the cut for the big one.
Then on Sunday afternoon Munster – the last of the eight quarter-finalists to qualify – face Harlequins in the Heineken Cup at The Stoop. Rob Penney's men are not fancied to progress.
Nevertheless, Henry is mindful of what those rival provinces have had in the past. Now he wants some of what they have enjoyed, Munster having conquered Europe in 2006 and 2008 followed by Leinster doing so in 2009, 2011 and 2012. So for Henry, that's the yardstick against which to measure oneself. Qualification is no longer enough; success means winning trophies.
"The players put most pressure on themselves. It's not the supporters or the media who do it, it's ourselves, We want to win something – that's the bottom line," he says.
"You can talk about getting to the final, you can talk about the big games that you've played up until now. But for us it's about getting silverware.
"Fortunately we're still in the mix in these two competitions (RaboDirect PRO12 and Heineken Cup) and that's exactly where we want to be at this stage of the season.
"Yes, we had a dip in form but that happens to any team; you're not going to win every match. But it's really, really exciting where we are now. At this stage, in past seasons, we'd be out and wouldn't have anything to look forward to.
"But that isn't the case now and it's just so exciting to be involved in a team which, provided we turn up and play as we can, I believe can beat the best sides out there."
Last weekend's win at the RDS – Ulster's first ever in that arena and their first Dublin triumph since 1999 – was the perfect warm-up for Saturday night's challenge at Twickenham.
Henry makes no attempt to hide the satisfaction that win gave him.
"That was a brilliant feeling," he beams. "The boys loved that."
The fact that Ulster knew they had to hit the ground running, and did so, merely added to the satisfaction. But he knows on Saturday night they must be better still.
"There was pressure on us against Leinster because we'd been struggling a wee bit during the Six Nations. Mark (Anscombe) said we needed a performance, but I think the players felt we needed a win as well as a performance. We wanted both so to get that really was massive for us.
"With guys coming back from Irish duty and others coming back from injury that was the first time we'd played together for quite a while.
"But because it was the only game we'd have before the Heineken Cup, we knew we didn't have a lot of time. We had to gel quickly.
"We're delighted to have won, but it wasn't perfect at all. We've a lot of things to work on.
"Our set-piece didn't function so if we're going to beat a team like Saracens it's going to mean taking another step up.
"Their pack is really strong so we know we have to be better than it was against Leinster," he admits.
But the line which resonates is: "Provided we turn up and play as we can, I believe can beat the best sides out there."