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New methods can add up to even more Ulster success, says Henderson

Maths student Iain believes recent coaching overhaul is already paying dividends

Jonathan Bradley

Both on and off the field, plenty has changed for Iain Henderson since he last pulled on an Ulster jersey. It's been almost five months since the province's 2016-17 trophy hopes were finally sunk against the Ospreys in Liberty Stadium and, unlike on that April afternoon, the 25-year-old is now both a British and Irish Lion and a married man.

The adjustments didn't stop there, though, as he returned to an Ulster camp with three new coaches and a host of fresh methods.

Having already spoken of the "different buzz" among the group ahead of his first appearance of the season against the Dragons tonight (7.35pm kick-off, Kingspan Stadium), Henderson has had a front-row seat as the alterations instigated by Director of Rugby Les Kiss have borne fruit to the tune of three wins from three to start the season.

As someone studying for a maths degree, it's perhaps no surprise that the lock-cum-flanker has appreciated being able to see how X plus Y is equalling Z.

"From a training perspective, it's different," he said from Upper Malone at an event to support his old side, Queen's University. "It's a lot more feisty, a lot more physical. But one of the key things for me is that it's not battering each other for the sake of it.

"I always think if you can explain to someone not just what you're doing but why you're doing it, you get a better response.

"Show a player the results, say to someone, 'Because you've done this, this happened'.

"There's reasons behind every new thing the coaches are having us do. Coming in late, it's been good in a way because you come in and you can already see the benefits and the results from the early weeks.

"The other guys maybe didn't see it immediately because they were coming in from the very start and building on it day by day.

"It's hard to see it like that sometimes but I could come in and see right away where we've got to quite quickly.

"We're a lot more focused on the breakdown, speeding up the breakdown, getting continuity, and we can look at that and say this is something that has got better because of the work we're doing in training.

"You start to see the rewards down the line. Don't get me wrong, it's not like if our scrum is bad at the weekend then we go in on Monday morning, do a scrum session and everything is perfect, everything we're doing is a work in progress. We want to try and better ourselves."

Given his standing in Ulster and beyond, it seems safe to assume that Henderson buying into the myriad of changes surrounding how the province are preparing for games is an important factor around Kingspan Stadium.

While 10 years younger than the side's captain and leader Rory Best, he was known to be especially stung when things weren't going the side's way last year, becoming increasingly vocal around the season's mid-winter nadir.

Henderson says his ascension to becoming one of the key voices in the changing room, however, was more of a natural progression.

"It's never a conscious thing and I don't think it should be," he said. "This is my fifth season as a senior player. You've more caps under your belt, you've been in more and more scenarios that you can call on.

"One day you look around and realise that, thinking back to the ones who might have spoken up before when you didn't, every season one of those has slipped away off into retirement.

"It's a natural progression. In three or four years' time you'll see the same thing happening with Jacob Stockdale, Kieran Treadwell, John Andrew.

"I can look at those guys and relate to where I was four years ago. It's a funny thing but that happens in any team."

And so, with another new season ahead of him, Henderson can't wait to get his teeth into tonight's game.

Having gradually been managed back into things given his Lions summer exertions, tonight's return from the bench has been a long time coming.

"I'm really looking forward to it," he added with a real bounce in his voice. "It feels like I haven't played in ages. We've most of the squad back now, the Lions back in the mix. It'll be great just to have that ball in hand again.

"A lot of the player welfare, looking objectively, you can understand why they're doing it even if you have to wait a few years to see the results.

"We've the best coaches, analysts, S&C guys, they have plenty of evidence for why and you have to put your trust in them. As much as I would like to be playing all the time, they have a job to ensure we're fit and firing as much as possible."

As a player who no less a figure than Ronan O'Gara described as "ready to explode" this season, Ulster are just glad to finally have him out there.

Bradley’s Verdict: Ulster

Risky from both teams as they use the game as a chance to give players who have been used heavily in the opening weeks a breather. With Iain Henderson on the bench, and a return for Charles Piutau, some of those changes have brought real quality but Ulster will need to win comfortably or this gamble will backfire.

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