Belfast Telegraph

Lion-hearted Henderson will savour memorable summer on and off field

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Never a man who could be described as your typical rugby player, Iain Henderson had a characteristically unusual response to hearing he was one of the lucky 41 selected by Warren Gatland for this summer's British and Irish Lions trip to New Zealand.

Having tuned into Sky Sports for the announcement at home with his fiancée Suzanne and their pair of dogs, the 25-year-old Ulsterman was quickly outside and cutting the grass as he contemplated being handed the highest honour in northern hemisphere rugby.

With the gardening done, much to the amusement of the girl he'll marry in the days after the tour who joked he'll now be absent for all the last-minute planning, Queen's University's 22nd British and Irish Lion turned to his phone.

With the somewhat battered device feeling the strain of the well wishes, Henderson's first call was to his father, Gordon.

"He already knew so he just gave me his usual 'well done' and I was like 'thank you' and that was about as much as I got out of him," said Henderson, joking that his selection meant he'd been called back into work on his day off for media duties.

"The phone has been completely mental since. I had to put it on charge there because it was dying off a wee bit with the non-stop phone calls and texts.

"I think my phone is about to keel over with it, it's not really coping with it at all.

"Everyone has been congratulating me and it's good to hear from everyone as well.

"Some people are just as shocked as I was judging by their excitement."

For someone usually adept at avoiding much of the furore surrounding such things, Henderson admitted that even he couldn't help but browse through some of the prospective squads floating around social media on Tuesday night.

"There were a few things being bandied about online, and usually I would not take a huge amount of interest in stuff like that, but I could not help myself," he admitted.

"I had a wee nosey and some people had a leaked squad that had me in it and some had a leaked squad that didn't.

"Once I saw that I immediately knew it was all just a bit of hearsay.

"I didn't really have any idea or an inkling and I was not really expecting much."

The lock-cum-flanker, whose copy of the 1997 tour documentary 'Living with the Lions' was permanently in his childhood video player, actually first pulled on the famous red jersey four years ago, mere months after making his Ireland debut against South Africa in an autumn international.

Back then, it was for a promo shoot on the off chance the dynamic ball carrier became a bolter, and he admitted it's a surreal notion to think he'll be wearing one for real this summer.

"I was in the Six Nations for one of the first times and all of a sudden you're pulling on a Lions jersey," he recalled.

"You're 21-years-old, living in a stupid student house and not quite sure why you've been handed this jersey to put on.

"I was a wee bit more prepared when the admin staff came round this time to get everyone fitted up for the jerseys and to do the headshots and stuff.

"At this stage I am probably going to struggle to put it into words, I am still quite shaken by the news and shocked by it. I can't actually probably fathom what it is going to mean to me to put it on.

"I am immensely proud and really grateful to the family and friends who have stuck by me and it means a huge amount to be able to be named in the squad.

"With my injury profile, hopefully I can go on through the summer and actually get playing now."

In going from Belfast Royal Academy to the Lions, Henderson follows in the footsteps of the legendary out-half Jack Kyle and he reflects that the Lions is the latest chapter in a career - one which only began when he changed his mind about a university place in Scotland - that has been something of a whirlwind.

"I texted DJ Creighton earlier, one of my coaches from BRA, and was just thinking that it's all gone by in an absolute heartbeat," he said.

"I remember that first cap for Ulster Under-20s and then Ireland Under-20s. That was surreal enough and then Ulster and Ireland (senior sides), all surreal.

"It feels like, thinking back of all the first times, it feels like a long journey but it also feels like it's gone in a heartbeat as well.

"I am delighted for this next stage and I'm just looking forward to grasping it with both hands."

While Henderson was injured when Ireland ended the All Blacks' winning run at 18 in Chicago last November, he believes the result can give the Lions a real belief as they head into what is the toughest challenge in world rugby.

"I heard someone mention on the TV about Ireland turning them over and that giving a bit of belief to northern hemisphere rugby. I think it definitely breeds hope and a bit of positivity," he added.

"A lot of the players in the northern hemisphere and especially here at Ulster, we know we have quality players but maybe sometimes we lack that bit of consistency.

"Maybe southern hemisphere teams hold their form a little bit better.

"Look, there is no bigger challenge than playing the best team in the world and trying to beat them three times.

"I think the tour is as tough as it is enjoyable. It'll be a very testing time not only for the body but mentally and emotionally too.

"It's an exciting prospect and one of the joys of the summer.

"It's going to be different from anything I've experienced before. It's all ahead of me and I'll just try and take it in my stride, like I do with most things."

As yesterday's red letter day proves, it's an approach that has been working just fine so far.

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