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Ulster ace Hendy driven on by his Bordeaux frustration

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 22/10/2016

Moving forward: Iain Henderson is out to leave the opening defeat in the past and use the Kingspan roar to kick-start Ulster’s European bid. Photo: James Crombie/INPHO
Moving forward: Iain Henderson is out to leave the opening defeat in the past and use the Kingspan roar to kick-start Ulster’s European bid. Photo: James Crombie/INPHO

Not accustomed to losing consecutive games, Iain Henderson believes Ulster must use their hurt as a spur towards victory when Exeter Chiefs visit Kingspan Stadium this evening (7.45pm).

Having begun their season with five straight victories, the province's campaign has taken on a different complexion since the calendar flipped to October, with last week's surrendering of a winning position against Bordeaux-Begles in the Champions Cup opener giving tonight's round two contest the feel of a must-win, even at this early stage of proceedings.

If Ulster had managed to hold out for eight more minutes when leading at the Stade Chaban Delmas, we likely would still be talking about a defensive stand for the ages.

Close, however, counts in horseshoes, not rugby, and the irritation in Henderson's voice is still evident days later when discussing the late collapse.

"Frustration," he replied simply when asked what has been the over-riding emotion of this week's preparations.

"We defended so well if not for stupid errors that nine times out of 10 most of our players don't make. That's what's so annoying.

"The positives that came out of the game were outweighed by really, really stupid negatives.

"That's brought massive frustration to the whole team but we've got to use it, put it behind us and focus on Exeter."

The Devon outfit had a humbling Sunday of their own last week, shipping five tries at home to Clermont, and Henderson acknowledges that the Chiefs arrive in Belfast equally desperate for a result.

"They had a scoreline that they'll be equally frustrated with," he said. "I don't think that reflected their game. They're going to want to come out and have a top performance.

"It was hard for them to take last week, I'm sure. We need to be on top of our game because they're coming over here looking to take home some points."

At present, Henderson's importance to Ulster is hard to overstate.

While Springbok signing Marcell Coetzee's game is more rounded than that of a bulking ball carrier, his ACL injury, expected to keep him out until mid-winter, and the departure of Nick Williams to Cardiff in the summer have left much of the pressure for gainline success on the 24-year-old's shoulders.

After an understated start to a season interrupted by an elbow issue, Henderson was certainly more prominent in Bordeaux even if he did not get much chance with ball in hand.

Leading the team in tackles and providing a key turnover were encouraging signs but Henderson wants further improvement in what is likely to be one of, if not the, final game he plays for the province before linking up with Ireland for the November Internationals.

"There's things that went well and things that went not so well," he reflected. "A few tackles, a couple of steals, but there's a few patterns that didn't go our way, a few exits that didn't go our way.

"Things like that frustrate me and the whole pack and the whole team. We need to make sure they're right.

"We talk about detail, about how it needs to be nailed on, it's those type of things.

"It only takes one person to get one thing wrong and before you know it, Bordeaux are knocking on your door for a whole half. We need to sort that out among ourselves."

Fail to do so and, with a daunting double-header against Clermont to come in December, Ulster's control over their European destiny would be tenuous at best. Henderson, however, believes the stakes are always high in this competition.

"In Europe, everyone plays like it's their last chance. You need as many points as you can get," he said.

"We found ourselves in that unfortunate position last year (losing their first game to Saracens) and did well to win four in the end. When you lose you need to get your bonus points and when you win you need to get them.

"There are no easy groups, nobody has it easier than anyone else. I think every team knows that you need to maximise the points you pick up and get as many points as you can. That especially goes for us and Exeter this week."

That Saracens loss was the last occasion Ulster welcomed Premiership opposition to the Kingspan Stadium and they have not dropped consecutive games to English visitors since losing four in a row between 1996 and 2001.

Such a streak is the product of so often producing in this exact situation, coming home with their backs against the wall and in need of a big performance.

While Henderson says you cannot rely on history simply repeating itself, he admits the squad are always confident in front of their own crowd.

He added: "We back our fans and our home form. We're all excited about the weekend and the opportunities that it holds."

Pressure? What pressure?

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