RBS 6 Nations: Ulster Rugby star Iain Henderson can be ace in Ireland's pack
Ulster's Iain Henderson will make his first RBS 6 Nations Championship start tomorrow boosted by a ringing endorsement from his captain, Paul O'Connell.
For having lauded the contribution of his Munster colleague Peter O'Mahony in the first three matches of the series, O'Connell expressed total faith in the blindside's 22-year-old replacement for tomorrow's Dublin date with Italy, tipping him to become a great.
"Peter's a fantastic player and he's been playing well for us. He's an excellent carrier, he's been brilliant on the ground and an excellent line-out option," O'Connell said.
"I suppose it's a testament to the strength in depth in the squad that a lot of people are excited as well about Iain Henderson coming in. It's disappointing for Peter but it's a big opportunity for Iain and I think he's going to be a great player as well.
"It's a great place for Ireland to be in," he said, stressing the ever-improving depth of the squad Joe Schmidt is building.
The coach was equally enthusiastic about Henderson.
"He actually played in the equivalent fixture when he game off the bench last season so he's not new to Six Nations rugby. He's had a bit of experience for such a young lad," Schmidt said.
"He's in good shape, he's a good athlete and we felt he came on and made quite a good impact when he came off the bench against England. That's the confidence that we've got in Iain.
"Potentially he's got a really good future on both the international and provincial scene."
Henderson's promotion comes as a result of O'Mahony not having recovered fully from the hamstring strain he suffered in the 13-10 defeat by England last time out. That is the only change to the side which started at Twickenham, though the knock-on effect of Henderson's upgrade is that Rhys Ruddock replaces him on the bench.
There is another change in the replacements with scrum-half Eoin Reddan coming in for Leinster colleague Isaac Boss who is rested.
Although there is no out and out lock on the bench, Schmidt was confident that he has options. And once again he pointed to Henderson's versatility as offering him a solution should he choose to replace a second row forward.
"We feel really confident," Schmidt said. "Paul's in great shape and is going to go the distance probably, Dev (Toner) is in great form and Iain Henderson has probably played more second row than back-row for Ulster and he is pretty comfortable there.
"So, that's the normal cover that you would have for the second row, it's just that your second row replacement is starting at number six.
"There is a degree of risk that two of the three might get hurt, but we finished the last 20 minutes of the Wales game with Peter O'Mahony in the second row, Rhys Ruddock knows all of the roles in the second row and he is ready to step in there if there's injuries."
Henderson's inclusion brings Ulster's representation in the starting 15 to four, the others being Rory Best, Chris Henry and Andrew Trimble who line out for the fourth game in a row.
With Jonny Sexton passed fit after his thumb sprain, a fifth Ulster player, Paddy Jackson, is on the bench as has been the case to date in the series.
Schmidt had no doubts about Sexton being fit to resume.
"He sprained his thumb, there is nothing that is untoward about it," he insisted. "He'll strap it up, just like players strap their ankles, strap their shoulders, strap things that give them support.
"But, apart from that, he's good to go. Injuries have to be managed and one of the things that happens is that if you sprain something you get a little bit of internal bleeding and that obviously affects the movement in the joint, creates pain in the joint.
"Once that inflammation and pain subsides and the bruising goes, then the joint is pretty much functional and away you go."
Yesterday's good day for the Ulster contingent was topped off when Tommy Bowe put in a useful session having been summoned to Carton House.
"It was really just to get Tommy back involved," Schmidt said. "He obviously had the three Test matches in November so he was very quickly up to speed again.
"We want to keep him involved in the wider group and if we come to next Monday and we feel that we need Tommy to add some more value then it's great that we had him in.
"I thought he trained well; he certainly looked like he was stretching his legs. He had no ill-effects afterwards and that's quite often the telling point, whether he tightens up afterwards. He really enjoyed getting back in.
"He's a quality player," said Schimdt.
IRELAND: R Kearney (Leinster); A Trimble (Ulster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), D Kearney (Leinster); J Sexton (Racing Metro), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), D Toner (Leinster), P O'Connell (Munster, capt); I Henderson (Ulster), C Henry (Ulster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: S Cronin (Leinster), J McGrath (Leinster), M Moore (Leinster), R Ruddock (Leinster), J Murphy (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster), P Jackson (Ulster), F McFadden (Leinster).