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Henry out to conquer French giants again

Flanker one of just two left of pack that helped beat Clermont in 2011

By Jonathan Bradley

Five years, it seems, has been a long time in Ulster Rugby.

It was back in the latter months of 2011 that the province first played today's visitors Clermont in a European fixture and, while it was out-half Ian Humphreys who scored all of the hosts' points in the 16-11 win, the victory was the product of an exemplary display by the forward unit.

After Dan Tuohy's departure to Bristol this week, only two of the pack that took Brian McLaughlin's side all the way to a Twickenham final remain.

While Les Kiss can still call on Chris Henry and Rory Best, the big European performances of Johann Muller, John Afoa, Stephen Ferris, Tom Court and Pedrie Wannenburg are now just fading memories around Kingspan Stadium.

"I didn't even realise that," Henry said of the changing face of the Ulster eight. "That's just the way rugby goes.

"I'll look back and take a bit of confidence, but it's two totally different teams."

And for Henry, it's time for this one to make some European history of its own.

While last season featured big results over four-time winners Toulouse in the pool stages Ulster fell a point short of the quarter-finals.

Indeed, more than half of today's 23-man squad have no experience of playing knock-out rugby for the province in Europe's top competition.

"The past is the past, and the past is done," the Malone man said.

"We need to make sure we're right from the very first whistle. This isn't a game that we can build into.

"We have to come out and show our intent from the very beginning.

"That's what's been discussed all week."

As he awaits the visit of a French giant to Kingspan Stadium, for Henry such occasions are unmatched in provincial colours and he still brims with excitement on the eve of his 41st European outing.

"It's hard to replicate that nervous energy that starts on a Monday morning when you come in and you know it's the European Cup that you're preparing for," he said.

"Especially a French team filled with internationals and real stars.

"It just refocuses the mind and I can't wait to get back out on Saturday afternoon.

"The best thing about playing for Ulster is when the big European teams come.

"I love Friday night but there's another side of a Saturday afternoon game.

"You get up, have your pre-match meal, the day flies in and then you get stuck in.

"There's no waiting around or having a nap waiting for 7.30pm to come.

"It's nice that you're not wasting as much nervous energy," he added.

While today's game will have been red-ringed in the calendar from an early stage, last week's victory over Cardiff ultimately ended up being even more eagerly anticipated for Henry.

Having nursed a shoulder problem throughout last season, the 32-year-old underwent surgery in the summer, ultimately going over six months between games.

Due to make his return against Zebre two weeks ago only for the game to be postponed shortly before kick-off, his comeback in the Welsh capital eight days later was one he looked forward to all the more.

"When the surgeon went in there were a few extra bits going on in the shoulder, so it was a bit longer than I expected," he explained.

"But I've come off the weekend and it feels great, and it makes me realise last year I really was carrying the shoulder.

"Hindsight is a wonderful thing but I feel great now.

"I'm just glad I have two shoulders that are working and can get stuck in. It felt fantastic to be back.

"I've really missed it and hopefully that showed at the weekend.

"It was six months since the (Guinness PRO12) semi-final against Leinster so definitely the longest time I've been out from playing rugby.

"I'd be lying to say I wasn't nervous.

"There was plenty to work on but overall I was happy with my first game back.

"This is obviously a much, much bigger test for me but I'm so relieved to be back playing, and this is what playing for Ulster's all about.

"A French team coming to town, the fans up for it, we get up for it, and already there's a great excitement about the week."

Alongside Iain Henderson and Sean Reidy, the return of Henry gives Les Kiss his first-choice back-row for today's contest, at least until Marcell Coetzee belatedly makes his debut for the province in the early stages of 2017.

Deployed together, the trio provided a marked improvement last week at the Arms Park while, as Henry notes, Clive Ross has deputised well this year.

"Hendy and Reidy are two unbelievable ball carriers for us and if I can do as much of the grunt work as possible so that I can give them the ball, that's what I'm really hoping to do," he said.

"Clive did unbelievably well at the start of the season and Marcell's going to be back hopefully early January, so there's going to be some really tough decisions for the coaches.

"I'm glad to be back in the mix and hopefully causing a few headaches for the coaches."

And, indeed, a few for Clermont's back-row come 1pm this afternoon.

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