Chris Henry: I feared heart scare was the end of my career:
Ulster and Ireland star Chris Henry has told for the first time of his terror at the realisation that his rugby career could be ended by a serious heart scare.
The 31-year-old flanker was rushed to hospital after being taken ill without warning in his Dublin hotel room the night before he was due to be part of Ireland's starting line-up in the 2014 Autumn international against South Africa at the Aviva.
It was initially thought to be nothing more serious than a severe migraine. However, four days of tests in St. Vincent's hospital in Dublin revealed a hole in his heart had caused a mini-stroke.
The Ulster stalwart has since returned to the top of the game, and against the odds made it all the way to last year's World Cup less than a year after the incident.
But, speaking as Ulster Rugby launched their 'Rugby at the Heart of the Community' initiative at Kingspan Stadium yesterday, Henry admitted the thought that he'd played his last game of rugby left him terrified.
"I thought that for a stage of about 10 days, where I didn't know what was happening, and I was preparing for the worst," he said.
"I was getting my affairs in order and starting to think what was I going to do and how much breathing space I'd have before I had to get back into study or go and find a job.
"I was constantly thinking of these things.
"I would be lying if I said I wasn't terrified. Luckily for me I was able to get through it and I'm very fortunate to be back out playing."
Henry's heart scare experience has given him a new-found appreciation for his health, an outlook that made him all the more happy to speak at the launch of an initiative aimed at supporting the welfare of everyone involved in the game and promoting positive health and wellbeing as a priority moving forward.
"For me, I didn't realise how important health is until I had that scare," he admitted.
"As a rugby player, it's all about being injury free and fit so I think anyone who is involved at any level can see the benefits of it and it's great Ulster are pushing this initiative.
"Like many things around the corner, you don't know what is ahead.
"It's the same with anything like picking up a sickness or picking up an injury.
"You look at the injury profile of our squad at the minute and it's pretty scary to see how many people are injured so often.
"It can happen at any time of your life, whether you're young or old.
"It's always important to be healthy, eat well, and do exercise, and if this initiative helps people take that on board, then it is a big positive."
Meanwhile, with the squeeze being on the provinces to prioritise Irish-qualified second rows, it had seemed that the chances of Franco van der Merwe securing a new contract at Ulster weren't really looking too likely.
But the 32-year-old South African's one-year extension at Ulster represents a good piece of business for the province in now being able to retain the durable lock's services until summer 2017.
Doubtless the choreography of young Irish-qualified Harlequins lock Kieran Treadwell recently signing on for next season - along with this week's surprisingly immediate departure of Lewis Stevenson to Exeter Chiefs - helped create sufficient wriggle room to keep Van der Merwe's valuable contribution on board.
Van der Merwe is one of the four permitted non-Irish qualified (NIQ) players on Ulster's books - Ruan Pienaar is still in contract while Wiehahn Herbst is only counted as an additional 'project' player and eligible for Ireland in summer 2017. The second row was, along with three other NIQs, due to be out of contract at the end of this campaign.
Nick Williams is already on his way out at season's end to Cardiff Blues while there is, as yet, no word of what will happen to Louis Ludik though a combination of Charles Piutau's impending arrival along with the widely rumoured signing of a top-class back rower to replace Williams suggests that the South African may also be exiting.
Former Lions and Sharks lock Van der Merwe will now stay on with Ulster for a third season, after joining up in summer 2014, by which stage he will be 34 years old and, more than likely, ready to bow out of the game.
His durability, huge experience and lineout prowess have all been factors in keeping the one-time capped Springbok here. Van der Merwe has certainly put in the work and started 26 of Ulster's 30 games last season before succumbing to injury while, in this campaign, he has managed to start in 15 of the 17 matches.
"I've thoroughly enjoyed my time here and it was an easy decision for me and my family to take," he explained.
"This season has been a bit of a transition with Les (Kiss) coming in, but I'm really excited to be part of the squad's growth over the next 18 months," he said.
Les Kiss, Ulster's Director of Rugby, said: "To have Franco stay is a fantastic boost. He is an excellent club man who contributes in such a positive way.
"His durability is outstanding and his lineout expertise speaks for itself."