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Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards: Iain Henderson's star will continue to rise after his big breakthrough

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 26/01/2016

On the up: Iain Henderson is presented with his trophy from all time rugby great Willie John McBride and Director of Rugby at Ulster, Les Kiss
On the up: Iain Henderson is presented with his trophy from all time rugby great Willie John McBride and Director of Rugby at Ulster, Les Kiss

If we didn't know already, we do now... Ulster and Ireland star Iain Henderson is set for the brightest of futures.

That's what normally lies ahead of whoever lifts the George Best Breakthrough Award, as Henderson did at the 2015 Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards last night.

Previous winners of the coveted prize include Steven Davis, Rory McIlroy and Michael Conlan. Since picking up the Breakthrough Award as young men, they haven't done too badly, have they?

Davis is now the Northern Ireland captain leading the country to the Euro 2016 finals, McIlroy is a four-time golf Major winner and Conlan is a World Amateur boxing champion.

Henderson has the ability to be the best on the planet too.

While those in Ulster and Ireland were well aware of Henderson long before 2015, last year saw the young forward announce himself on the world arena. It was his big breakthrough year on the global stage.

The World Cup may have ended disappointingly for Joe Schmidt's side but it was an unqualified success for the young Ulster forward who was one of Ireland's most eye-catching performers.

Having won 12 caps before the 2015 Six Nations, Henderson established himself as an integral part of the national squad during the championship with five appearances off the bench to earn a second winners' medal in as many seasons.

The 23-year-old didn't find himself among the replacements again for some time.

His performances for Ulster at the tail end of last season turned him from a World Cup squad certainty into a potential starter.

Sports Star of the Year: Michael Conlan . Trophy presented by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Belfast Telegraph's editor Gail Walker, and Linwoods head of marketing Sarah Shimmons. Photo by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Sports Star of the Year: Michael Conlan . Trophy presented by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Belfast Telegraph's editor Gail Walker, and Linwoods head of marketing Sarah Shimmons. Photo by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Team of the Year winner: Northern Ireland football team. Manager Michael O'Neill and assistant coach Jimmy Nicholl collect the trophy on behalf of the team from champion cyclist Martyn Irvine and Patrick Woods, Director of Linwoods. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Belfast Telegraph Editor Gail Walker and Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards sponsored by Linwoods 2015 at the Ramada Hotel, Belfast.
Martin O'Neill is inducted into the Hall of Fame and presented with his trophy by football legends Pat Jennings, Gerry Armstrong, Michael O'Neill, Neil Lennon and joined by Chris Nelmes, Centre Manager of category sponsor The OUTLET Banbridge. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Hall of Fame award: Martin O'Neill is inducted into the Hall of Fame and presented with his trophy by Chris Nelmes, Centre Manager of category sponsor The OUTLET Banbridge. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Belfast boxer Michael Conlan gets a congratulatory kiss from his mum Theresa as he was named Belfast Telegraph Sports Star of the Year at a glittering ceremony in Belfast’s Ramada Hotel last night
Manager of the Year winner: Michael O'Neill. Michael is presented with his award from Bolton Wanderers manager Neil Lennon and Richard McClean, Managing Director, Belfast Telegraph. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
After his storming World Cup for Ireland, the George Best Breakthrough Award is given to Ulster Rugby's Iain Henderson. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Top team: Representatives from the Commonwealth games Youth team, Conor Ferguson, Danielle Hill, Ben Fisher and James McGivern collect their award from rugby legend Tommy Bowe and Muriel O'Grady, chair of the SUBWAY Ireland Marketing Board
Malcolm Brodie Player of the Year: Steven Davis (collected by father David) .Rugby Legend Stephen Ferris and Rajesh Rana, Director of category sponsor Ramada Plaza presents David Davis with Stephen's trophy. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Young Player of the Year Conor Ferguson is presented with his trophy by Dame Mary Peters and Arthur Scott, Sport NI Interim Chief Executive. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Sportsperson with a Disability winner: Michael McKillop is presented with his trophy by Paddy Barnes and Joanne McDowell, Director for Northern Ireland of category sponsor, Big Lottery Fund. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Michael McKillop with Jackie Fullerton. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Winners all: Telegraph Sports Star of the Year Michael Conlan, flanked by Coach of the Year Michael O’Neill and Hall of Fame entrant Martin O’Neill
Local Heroes award winner: Aisling Reilly is presented with her trophy by GAA Tyrone Manager Mickey Harte and Brian Henning, Chair of Sport Northern Ireland. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Special recognition award goes to Crossmaglen's Paul Hearty. Paul Hearty is presented with his trophy by Belfast Giant's Matt Nickerson and Robert Cairns, Volvo Parts Manager of category sponsor Volvo. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Special recognition award goes to Crossmaglen's Paul Hearty. Photo: Paul Hearty aand Claire McCollum. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Young Team of the Year goes to the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games Youth squad. Conor Ferguson, Danielle Hill, Ben Fisher and James McGivern collect their award from rugby legend Tommy Bowe and Muriel O'Grady, chair of the SUBWAY Ireland Marketing Board and franchisee. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Erin Cassidy, Julia McCann, Ella Rourke, Eile Bradley, Cara Gordon and Michela McAvoy pictured at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards sponsored by Linwoods 2015 at the Ramada Hotel, Belfast.
Peter Spratt with his daughter Lucy pictured at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards sponsored by Linwoods 2015 at the Ramada Hotel, Belfast.
Ben Fisher and Angel Reyes pictured at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards sponsored by Linwoods 2015 at the Ramada Hotel, Belfast.
Eileen Logan and Debby Armstrong
Sarah Shimmons, Michael O'Neill and Paddy Barnes
Carol McMenamin, Joanne Hayden and Jane Rowe
Gail Walker and Neil Lennon
Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards sponsored by Linwoods 2015 at the Ramada Hotel, Belfast.
Pat Jennings
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness with boxer Michael Conlan pictured at the awards night. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 25th January 2016 - Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards sponsored by Linwoods 2015 at the Ramada Hotel, Belfast. Steven Beacom pictured at the awards night.   Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 25th January 2016 - Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards sponsored by Linwoods 2015 at the Ramada Hotel, Belfast. Guests at the awards night.   Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 25th January 2016 - Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards sponsored by Linwoods 2015 at the Ramada Hotel, Belfast. Guests at the awards night.   Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 25th January 2016 - Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards sponsored by Linwoods 2015 at the Ramada Hotel, Belfast. Stephen Baxter at the awards night.   Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 25th January 2016 - Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards sponsored by Linwoods 2015 at the Ramada Hotel, Belfast. Claire McCollum and Jackie Fullerton pictured at the awards night.   Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye

Defeat to Glasgow in the PRO12 semi-final ended the campaign on a sour note but the Ulster academy graduate carried his personal form into World Cup preparation.

A first international try against Wales in the Aviva warm-up game further pressed his case for a starting spot come the tournament opener and, indeed, when the Canada game arrived it was his name pencilled in beside the iconic figure of Paul O'Connell in Ireland's engine room.

The soon to be departed captain welcomed Henderson's ascension to the No.4 jersey.

"He doesn't need any looking after; you can't coach what he has," said the legendary lock.

Far from being overawed, Henderson was right at home on the big stage, earning man of the match honours against Canada in a performance highlighted by another try.

Against the Italians two weeks later, he was arguably even better.

It was a performance that had the greatest Lion of them all, Willie John McBride, stating that the way Henderson was playing, he'd fully expect to see him on the tour to New Zealand next summer.

It was fitting that Willie John was on stage along with Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards to announce Henderson as the George Best Breakthrough Award winner.

In the press conferences building up to the pool decider against France and the quarter-final defeat to Argentina, Ireland's players and coaches were frequently fielding questions from curious foreign journalists asking just where the man who only five years before was playing in a Schools' Cup final had come from.

Despite his heroics, Henderson could do nothing to stop his side suffering last-eight heartache at the hands of the Pumas.

He said: "Looking back on the World Cup now there were the highs of the France game and the lows of Argentina. Some of the boys said that the noise in the Millennium Stadium that day we played France was the loudest they'd ever heard so it was great to be a part of that.

"Argentina was just a soul-destroyer. You let it get to you for a while afterwards but you have to drive on."

His efforts to do so have been hampered by injury, firstly a finger problem suffered against Argentina.

The surgery kept him out until the winter but upon his return he was struck down with a hamstring tear.

His loss will be felt by both Ulster and Ireland over the coming months but in the years to come, given his qualities, Henderson's star will continue to rise.

Belfast Telegraph

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