Iain Henderson has All Blacks in his sights
With huge seasons ahead for Ulster and Ireland, Iain Henderson has history to make - he just hopes injury doesn't get in the way.
The dynamic flanker-cum-lock is one of the northern hemisphere's emerging stars but has had his patience tested with a series of lengthy spells on the sidelines since making his Ulster debut back in the spring of 2012.
Most recently, he missed a large chunk of last year when, shortly after returning from a hand problem picked up during his star turn at the World Cup, he tore a hamstring that kept him out for four months.
"I always find I play my best rugby when I get a good run but that hasn't happened much," he said at a media evening for his old club side Queen's University. "Touch wood I can have an injury-free run this year and build some momentum. It's been frustrating, everyone knows that.
"A lot of players are out for long stretches but teams and countries are definitely getting better at managing that so we come back stronger and better.
"Stuart Olding is testament to that, the way he came back and is playing so well off the back of two big injuries."
The last we saw of Henderson on the pitch was against the Springboks as Ireland made history on their June tour with a first ever Test win on South African soil. Having travelled with a squad hugely affected by injury, the prospect of a victory seemed remote but instead Ireland returned home feeling they should have sealed a series triumph.
For Henderson, any lingering frustration over a blown lead in the second Test, or the failure to secure a clinching score one week later, does not detract from the encouraging signs for a side that last season suffered a disappointing World Cup before surrendering their Six Nations title.
"Definitely from the outside there wasn't a huge amount of confidence going in," he said. "The quality of players that we had out there though, I knew we were capable of doing the job.
"Overall everyone really enjoyed the tour. Winning the first match meant that for the rest of the tour we had something to play for so it was fantastic in that sense. Going into that second Test we really thought we could do it and right the way into that second half we had it in the bag.
"That's probably what the problem was, we got a bit sloppy and let them play a bit too much.
"It's not like it was a tour where we didn't have any hope from day one. It wasn't the desired outcome but we made a bit of history and it was great to be a part of that.
"With the first Test, Paddy Jackson stood up to the mark and was absolutely incredible. Stuart Olding hasn't played a huge amount of international rugby but I thought he was fantastic. Luke Marshall wasn't getting picked for Ulster six or seven months beforehand and was incredible for Ireland.
"All those players, people wouldn't have had starting if everyone was fit. It was brilliant to see that, apart from Conor Murray, at one stage you had an all-Ulster backline."
Following the tour, Henderson flew to Miami where he proposed to his childhood sweetheart Suzanne Flanagan, joking that it was a different type of holiday for a man used to spending his summers with Jackson and Olding, but is now in the thick of new season preparations.
After the history-making win over South Africa, Henderson has his eyes on more firsts for Ireland in the coming months as the squad prepares to gather for a training camp this weekend.
Joe Schmidt - a coach the 24-year-old still hopes to see stay beyond his current contract - will lead the side into two battles with his native New Zealand, once in Chicago and once in Dublin, during a busy November with Henderson eager to contribute to another indelible mark in the rugby history books.
"I think when we meet up there'll be a big buzz coming off the last tour and there's a realisation there that, even with a load of injuries, we can compete at the highest level possible. We competed in all three Tests that we played in against South Africa," he said.
"A few of the boys thought they had a win last time (when New Zealand came back with a last-gasp try to win in 2013). I wasn't playing then but history is there to be made. We've done it once this year and there's no reason why we can't do it again in November." The All Blacks will loom large beyond the autumn, of course, thanks to a Lions tour to New Zealand this summer.
Becoming just the sixth Ulster native to represent the home nations collective in the professional era is a possibility that remains far from Henderson's thoughts at this stage.
"I'm only just back into pre-season two weeks ago so it's a long time before starting the season," he said. "It'll be even longer to the autumn internationals and the Six Nations. If I get through all that, we'll talk about the chance but I know not to be counting my chickens being relatively injury prone.
"Getting selected for that is at the very furthest point of my mind."
Like the rest of Ulster's Ireland contingent, he'll play no part in tomorrow's friendly with Exeter at Sandy Park but is eagerly anticipating the season ahead with Les Kiss' side. It was Henderson who spoke passionately last season of the desire to see Ulster's now decade-long trophy drought come to an end before the likes of Rory Best and Tommy Bowe hang up their boots but he sees the slow changing of the guard at the Kingspan as a positive as players such as himself and Jackson emerge as leaders.
"Ulster are looking like they're going towards a really good place. A few games together and, if the whole thing can gel, we're going to be in good stead," he added. "I remember when I moved into the squad, Chris Henry and Andrew Trimble were the young boys. They're the older boys now so it's interesting to see that dynamic changing and I think it's great for the team."
Iain Henderson was speaking to the Belfast Telegraph at House of Sport on behalf of his former club Queen's University Belfast.