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Ulster Rugby chief Bryn Cunningham has high hopes Chris Henry will be back after heart operation

Flanker Chris starts on long road to recovery after heart operation

By Jonathan Bradley

The IRFU yesterday confirmed that Ulster flanker Chris Henry underwent exploratory heart surgery on Monday.

The 30-year-old pulled out of Ireland's Test with South Africa earlier this month following what was then described as "an episode."

It was later revealed that the Malone man had suffered a "temporary blockage of a small blood vessel in his brain" before details of a possible heart defect emerged on Sunday.

The Ireland national medical team, in conjunction with their Ulster Rugby counterparts, yesterday confirmed that there was indeed a heart issue and that action had been taken to rectify the problem.

A short statement read: "Chris is recovering from a procedure yesterday (Monday) to repair a defect in his heart wall. This was found to be related to his recent episode and has been performed to prevent further issues."

Henry, having starred throughout last season's victorious Six Nations campaign, was due to win his 17th cap against the Springboks and, given his form for Ireland over the last year, was sure to be involved in both next year's title defence and World Cup campaign.

He will now be out of action for the foreseeable future but Bryn Cunningham yesterday confirmed that Ulster were confident he will return to professional rugby.

Giving his first interview since being appointed as Ulster's new Team Manager at the end of October, the former fullback said: "From our point of view it's just about him getting back to a full bill of health.

"If he gets back to playing professional rugby that will be fantastic. That's certainly what we are hoping."

"We'll wait for the medical team to give us some feedback in terms of how successful it was, that will be monitored over the next few days and that should give us a good idea just of where he is and his potential return to play.

"He is a massive favourite here at the Kingspan Stadium and the crowd will all want to see him back but only on the basis that the medical staff are absolutely 100% confident that he is fully fit."

Cunningham, whose own career came to an end in 2010 due to a knee injury, continued: "Any injury you pick up, there is always that potential that you don't get back from it.

"The nature of the game nowadays is very, very physical, the demands are huge.

"You cannot come back if you're only 70-75% fit, you have to come back fully fit so with any form of surgery there is an element of risk to it."

Reaffirming his belief, however, that we will see Henry add to his 126 Ulster appearances in the future, Cunningham stated: " What we're concerned about is that he makes a full recovery.

"We're quite confident, judging from the feedback, that will be the case and that hopefully he'll make a return to the hallowed turf here (the Kingspan Stadium)."

Ulster Chief Executive Shane Logan added: "I think we'd be optimistic that he will make a full recovery and come back as quickly as possible."

Henry's long-term health is clearly the paramount concern but, having lost another favourite son to early retirement last season in the shape of Stephen Ferris, it would be a cruel blow if the likeable openside was also unable to resume his career.

There are, however, at least some encouraging precedents.

While, obviously in instances such as this, each case must be treated individually, Piri Weepu, the All Black scrum-half who won the World Cup in 2011, returned to the game last year having been diagnosed with a hole in the heart that caused a stroke.

When the problem first came to light Weepu, as Henry is now, was 30 years old but seven months later he was back on the field and, having left the Auckland Blues in his homeland, now represents London Welsh in the Aviva Premiership.

In America, five NBA players have undergone heart surgery with four of them recovering sufficiently to resume their pro careers.

The most recent, Jeff Green of the Boston Celtics, came back from an aortic aneurysm and signed a four-year, $36million contract just eight months after surgery.

Two-time Olympic Gold medallist snowboarder Shaun White has had a heart condition throughout his career while one-time New York Yankee Aaron Boone was another who returned and represented the Houston Astros following treatment for a defect in 2009.

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