Belfast Telegraph

Iain Henderson's secret to Lions success: politics and a bit of craic

Before a positive performance in Dunedin, the Ulsterman spoke to Jonathan Bradley about life on Tour

There are few things that help two British and Irish Lions players bond more than a cold beer after a tough game.

It’s something that the management know well, some of them having been there before, and it’s why they are happy for the squad to drink while on tour in an effort to create the squad harmony needed to defeat a team of the calibre of the All Blacks.

So it must have come as a surprise to the rooming committee responsible for selecting roommates when they discovered that the pairing of Iain Henderson and Maro Itoje (below) have bonded over their interest in politics.

“I’ve never had it with another rugby player,” said Ulsterman Henderson, who quickly realised Itoje’s love of political debate when he discovered in Auckland that he is coming to the end of a degree in African politics.

“That was the initial discussion. He was talking about politics and I was talking about Northern Irish politics, and our current inability to form a government. Then in the last week or so we have discovered that the Conservatives and the DUP will be forming together to get rid of this hung Parliament so to speak.

 “So I was just explaining to him again this week some of the — I’m trying to choose my words very carefully — brief summation of Northern Ireland in terms of Stormont and the politics that goes on in it.”

25-year-old Henderson got his second start of the tour against the Highlanders and enjoyed a much more positive display.

His first had not gone too well, with Henderson singled out for criticism in failing to collect the kick-off that immediately put the Lions under pressure and resulted in them not leaving their own half for the first seven minutes of the match.

That narrow 13-7 win over the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians was not a great one to be selected for.

Just 72 hours after stepping off the plane following a two-day flight, Henderson and 14 others had to face a side eager to take their chance to prove themselves.

“That game seems like weeks and weeks ago now,” Henderson adds.

“I think all the boys who are getting another crack at it will be looking forward to getting onto the pitch and getting a bit more game time.  I think everyone’s a little more confident in the systems and structures now.

“Confident with each other, confident in other people’s company, playing with people, training with them a bit more. That’s definitely been evident to me in training, things have been gelling better and that’s probably evident in the game just past.

“Everyone’s working slightly better together as a whole unit and so all these wee bits and pieces that are getting better in training are hopefully going to keep on building towards performances for us.

“However, it’s been really good going out for a few bites of food, a good few coffees going around with a lot of the other lads and you can definitely see it now; we’re into our third week since we left London, everyone’s a lot more comfortable with each other.

“In that first week you’re still really getting to know the guys; there’s definitely a real feeling in the squad; not only on the pitch but off the pitch which I think is more important.

“Guys are comfortable with each other, guys playing a bit of FIFA, ping-pong, having a bit of craic in the team-room — that’s vital and key to making sure we’re good on the pitch, being secure off the pitch.”

It just goes to show that the more time the Lions are given, the more they can prove that England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales can work together successfully.

It’s something that Prime Minister Theresa May should probably take note of, given the current political state of the United Kingdom.

“I don’t know, it might be a little better run if there was a Lions squad in there!” jokes Henderson. It may not be achieving political peace on the messy scene that is the UK right now, but should the Lions down the All Blacks next month, it will certainly feel just as important to this squad.

Meanwhile, if Henderson thought adjusting to the jet-lag on the way out was a challenge, it’ll be an entirely different kettle of fish on the return journey.

“I think the Ulster boys are getting back in to Belfast at about 8pm on July 12 and I’m getting married at noon on the July 14,” he said with a smile yesterday.

“I somehow managed to cut that as fine as possible.”

His fiancée Suzanne Flanagan will take a break from the wedding planning for a brief stint in New Zealand, but ultimately the big day has been her project as her husband to be tackles the tour of a lifetime.

“As far as I’m aware all the wedding planning is going very smoothly,” he said.

“Outside of that I’m glad to be sleeping during the day at home so I don’t have to worry about any of that.

“It will definitely be tight enough getting back home jet-lagged and then going on honeymoon over to Singapore. So that week between July 12-16 will definitely be sleepless.

“I don’t know whether I’ll be tired or not. I’ll have to just wait and see how that comes, and hopefully it will all work out fine."

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