Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

I nearly walked away from my rugby dream: Chris Henry

Injury crisis gave Irish ace his big opportunity

Eye on the sky: Chris Henry almost turned his back on rugby to become an air traffic controller

WHEN Ireland's players were seriously assessing their professional selves within an Enfield hotel in late 2008, Chris Henry was contemplating an even more decisive career swerve.

Having just turned 24, it seemed as if the Ballymena man's professional career had hit the buffers with Ulster, the club with whom he had been absorbed since entering their Academy as a graduate of Wallace High.

As exalted team-mates such as Tommy Bowe, a former Academy colleague, navel-gazed their pathway towards Grand Slam glory, Henry's modest rugby career appeared to have stalled.

Exeter Chiefs had offered him a last-chance exit strategy – Ulster persuaded him to reject it. "You're important to us, Chris," David Humphreys, among others, told him.

"Yeah, as a tackle bag," he smiles now.

Henry's professional dream was grounded. So he looked to the skies. His dad, William, was an air traffic controller; Henry, a geography graduate, opted to follow in the footsteps of his father.

He passed one test with flying colours. Then, a door squeaked ajar – an injury in the Ulster team depleted by international duty afforded him a provincial debut as a No 8.

"A horrible, messy night against Harlequins, 3-0 or something awful," he recalls.

No matter. The itch had been scratched.

Five seasons on from that fateful crossroads in his professional life, Henry is still grounded. But in a more holistic way.

It's just that now he is an integral part of the Ireland back-row that will challenge England in a Triple Crown decider in two days' time.

While Ireland's last trophy success may have happened in a different world, now Henry is at the centre of its universe, a true tribute to faith, perseverance and sheer bloody-mindedness.

"They were really frustrating times," Henry recalls now, in his revered status as more than just a Sean O'Brien stand-in, but a focal point of Ireland's gritty loose trio.

"You're always impatient as a young kid and I was no different, I suppose. But not going for those second set of tests for that air traffic control job was probably the best thing that could have happened to me in the long run.

"I've worked really hard for everything I've got since then in my career and I wouldn't change a thing. It's a fantastic period in my life, being able to get all these opportunities. But it only happened because I was patient.

"All the coaches and David Humphreys kept faith in me and demanded I keep faith in them. I always had potential, I was just never ready when I got the chance. They never strung me along, but I knew there'd be dark days."

As that 2009 Grand Slam unfolded, Henry was taking tentative footsteps in the provincial game, such that the international acclaim afforded the Irish team was some way off his radar.

He didn't attend any of the games and, in a second-hand fashion, attracted the joy of it vicariously through his provincial colleagues.

"I was just thinking about Ulster caps, not Ireland caps," he reveals. "It was a world away. I knew the lads, but it didn't feel like I could ever be part of it. Now I'm going to get my 12th cap in Twickenham on Saturday with a potential Triple Crown."

He has to pinch himself. He had never won a medal until the Churchill Cup triumph that followed that Grand Slam win in that annus mirabilis for Irish rugby.

"This is the biggest game I have ever played in," he says, fast-forwarding giddily. "There is no point in trying to hide it. It means something – a Triple Crown.

"When was that Churchill Cup in Denver, was that four years back? Before that, I never won the Schools' Cup, I never won the Medallion Shield (the province's Junior Cup), I haven't won anything with Ulster.

"This is it. There is a trophy on the line – it is the biggest game I have played."

The fear, particularly given the chastening experience with Ulster of two Heineken Cup defeats to Leinster, heavily in 2012's final, and meekly, to Saracens at the quarter-final stage a year later, is that it may overwhelm him.

"I don't think it will be too big psychologically," he demurs. "I will approach it in the right way. I have played in big games. You always go back to your big games that you played in before and you take confidence from that.

"I just want to keep enjoying it. You don't know how long you will have to have these opportunities."

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