Rugby World Cup: Time has come for Ulster's Iain Henderson to shine on the world stage
Coach and skipper hail Ulster's star
Ireland's coach and captain heaped praise upon Iain Henderson yesterday after the Ulster forward was selected to start the first game of their World Cup campaign against Canada tomorrow afternoon.
Joe Schmidt and Paul O'Connell were effusive in their descriptions of the 23-year-old whose first World Cup appearance will come in the number four jersey that has been occupied by Devin Toner in recent seasons.
The groundswell of support for such a switch had been building for months but reached fever pitch five weeks ago after the 19-times capped tyro produced an all-action display in Ireland's engine room during the warm-up Test against Wales at the Aviva Stadium.
A rare blend of pace and power, Ireland's supremo admitted that the diverse skill-set of Henderson continues to raise eyebrows as he recalled a footrace between the 23-year-old and Keith Earls in the draw between Ulster and Munster at Kingspan Stadium back in May.
"There have been a number of things that have surprised us about Iain Henderson," he said in Cardiff yesterday.
"One of them is his speed. Keith Earls is genuinely quick and the race for that ball, it was probably 40 metres.
"One of the things that impressed us was how he saw it as it started to unfold and managed to get himself into a position to compete for that ball."
Henderson has played an important role in the side's first back-to-back Six Nations championships since 1949, although he stared just once in the 10 games, with Schmidt believing those cameos now warrant a starting slot.
"We've got to know him well in the last two Six Nations," he said.
"He was involved in the tackle that managed to hold up the French two years ago and he had involvements in the last Six Nations, but for us he's a force of nature that we're pretty well aligned with what his abilities are.
"Paul described him as laidback bordering on horizontal and I think that is him.
"We want to make sure he's really well prepared to drive himself forward.
"He's learning a bit of that and he balances his day really well.
"He is truly switched on for sessions and he does switch himself off after."
O'Connell, playing in his fourth and final World Cup with a move to Toulon on the horizon, is looking forward to the prospect of linking up with Henderson.
"He's played in a lot of big games with Ulster and he's very confident in his own ability," he said.
"It's exciting to play with him and he doesn't take a lot of looking after.
"You can't coach the attributes he possesses in terms of power, speed and how he reads the game."
While yesterday's team announcement brought good news for Henderson, who will be joined from the off by provincial teammates Jared Payne and Rory Best with Chris Henry taking his place among the replacements, there was no such luck for Darren Cave.
The 28-year-old, appearing at his first World Cup after making a late run for the squad, could have been in line to replace Robbie Henshaw at inside centre after the Athlone man was ruled out on Tuesday with a hamstring strain.
Schmidt though opted to fill the 12 jersey with Luke Fitzgerald, who he has previously utilised in the position for Leinster.
The coach, however, said that Cave's familiarity with the position meant that giving him a run was less of a concern.
"There's nothing major (with Henshaw's hamstring) but at the time we were thinking that we don't have a massive amount of midfield cover.
"To get Luke another game in the midfield it was a good opportunity to get him involved. We know Darren can do it already, so we weren't too panicked about getting him the time there.
"I thought he (Cave) played really well in that game against Wales away.
"He found the pace of the game entirely different at Twickenham two weeks ago, and that was a learning experience for him."
With the opener now just a day away, Schmidt is not willing to entertain any speculation of what may occur in the latter stages of the tournament.
"I don't think it's a question we pose ourselves," he said when asked if his team was capable of winning the whole tournament.
"I think making some sort of predication is a moot point because in two days time we'll know a little bit more about ourselves, others will know a little bit more about us.
"We just want to keep the expectations around what we're going to do on Saturday," he added.
Pool D: Millennium Stadium, Saturday 2.30pm