Ulster Rugby desperate to wreck Brian O'Driscoll's farewell bash
Ulster's Iain Henderson is hoping spoil the Saturday night party for Ireland team-mate Brian O'Driscoll.
Tomorrow night Leinster host Ulster in the RaboDirect PRO12 semi-final at the RDS (7pm). And that's the game in which 22-year-old Henderson aims to turn up as a party-pooper.
It's nothing personal, but if he and his Ulster team-mates are to be in the May 31 final against the winners of tonight's Glasgow Warriors v Munster tie, they must put paid to the plans to send O'Driscoll into retirement with yet another trophy tucked under his arm.
Henderson knows that an Ulster victory would mark the end of the road for O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen as players but he said: "I wouldn't be too worried about sending those guys off on a low. I'd be a lot more interested in sending our captain Johann (Muller) off on a high."
To date, everything in the protracted countdown to the Irish rugby legend's departure at the end of the season has gone perfectly to plan.
His final Dublin appearance in an Ireland shirt came on the day when he set a world record for Test matches but Henderson is refusing to let friendship or the emotion of the occasion get in the way of an Ulster triumph.
Typically, in his final Ireland appearance on home soil, O’Driscoll signed off with a man of the match performance which saw him make three tries against Italy.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as the uncrowned King of Dublin enjoyed the encore.
A week later in Paris, he helped his team clinch the Six Nations Championship title in what was his last-ever international outing.
Like his home city crowd, the French capital audience rose to salute him as a rugby superstar.
Winning the PRO12 in his final match before retiring would be the perfect exit for the best Irish player of all time.
And beating Ulster tomorrow night would put all the pieces in place.
The Leinster supporters’ planned hero’s exit for their talisman depends on Ulster losing — and that's just not part of tomorrow night's visitors’ thinking.
A similar scenario six weeks ago saw Jonny Wilkinson-captained Toulon host Leinster in a Heineken Cup quarter-final.
With O'Driscoll on the pitch, too, it was going to be the last appearance in the competition for one of those two rugby legends.
Toulon won 29-14 which meant that in the space of three weeks O'Driscoll's reign as an international and Heineken Cup star was over.
Tomorrow night the two men aiming to avoid exiting the stage a fortnight early are O'Driscoll
and Ulster captain Johann Muller.
And Henderson smiled as he said: “I'd be a lot more interested in sending Johann Muller off on a nice high.”
With 22 international appearances already to his credit, Henderson will be facing a host of his Ireland team-mates.
Quite apart from it being a RaboDirect PRO12 semi-final pairing, it's also a final opportunity to nail down an Ireland place for next month's two Tests in Argentina (June 7 and 14).
“We want to win this competition so that means we have to win this weekend's match for there to be another one,” Henderson says. “And anybody who wants to go on the Ireland tour will have to put in a good performance.”
Inter-pro clashes provide the perfect opportunity for rivals for the same positions to make their cases. Henderson knows exactly what at stake.
“Each time you play you know the Ireland coaches are going to be watching so you have to make sure that in every game you're doing the best you can,” he explained. “It's a matter of making them want to pick you. That's why inter-pros are so hard — everybody is pushing themselves so that drives the standard up.”
From Joe Schmidt's perspective, the timing of this Leinster v Ulster inter-pro could not be better.
As Henderson put it: “Having a derby game at this stage of the season is a benefit for the coaches because it means they get to look at all the head-to-heads.
“With us playing Leinster there's definitely going to be one Irish team in the [PRO12] final.
“I'm sure they'd love to it to be two because it would help them see players pairing off against one another so they know who's ready to dominate against Argentina.
“They'll be naming the squad for the tour after the semi-finals so I suppose everybody's a bit on tenterhooks at the minute because we're all looking for a place,” he admitted.