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Pre-season will help Ulster get into the groove: Chris Henry

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Chris Henry's first pre-season as part of the Ulster set-up came as an 18-year-old Academy player back in 2003. Now, with Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe both retired, he is the squad's elder statesman, younger than only the team's skipper Rory Best.

In all of his 15 years of service though, he has never experienced a summer of change quite like the one witnessed at Kingspan Stadium ahead of the upcoming campaign.

With both director of rugby Les Kiss and head coach Jono Gibbes having departed over the last six months, preparations for 2018/19 began this week without a main man heading up the ticket as the province wait for the incoming Dan McFarland to be released from his contract with the Scottish Rugby Union.

While that may not come until January, the former Connacht man's state of limbo isn't the only cause for disruption with a host of senior players having left or retired, a new CEO still to be appointed and the twin departures of long-serving head physio Gareth Robinson and head of strength and conditioning Jonny Davis.

Despite all the change, and the sweltering heat, Henry believes the first days of pre-season have gone well with assistant coaches Dwayne Peel and Jared Payne taking the reins.

"We're not naive, it would have been much smoother if Dan was in straight away," admitted the flanker. "But Dwayne Peel and Jared Payne have really taken charge of operations.

"It's been a really good week and we're already getting rugby detail. The first couple of weeks are always gruelling but at least if you get a rugby ball in your hands you're focusing on things like decision making.

"Jared's been awesome. He's one of the best players I've ever played with but as a coach he's been amazing.

"He's coming back from being on the Ireland tour this summer and maybe he's more confident because he's really taken charge."

Despite his absence, McFarland has had an early hand in things too.

"At the moment, even though Dan hasn't been here he's put a really good programme in place," added Henry.

"The coaches know exactly what they're doing, they know exactly what he wants.

"The players are hoping he'll be in soon. If he comes in January we'll adapt but, like everybody else, we're hoping he's in soon."

With both Davis and Robinson having served so long that they felt almost like a part of the furniture at Kingspan Stadium, especially at this time of year when fitness work comes to the fore, Henry does though remain somewhat taken aback by the pair's sudden departure at the end of last month.

"It was a real shock the way it was handled," he said. "JD and GG (Robinson), they're missed obviously and it is strange without them.

"Unfortunately, in the pro game people move on quite quickly at times. The IRFU have made this decision for them to move on.

"The service that they have given, the strides they have made to bring Ulster forward, they know that the players have so much respect for them, and whatever they go on to do, they'll be successful."

For all the change, Henry remains something of a constant and, while he hopes this season will not be his last in the jersey, the coming campaign will be considered his testimonial year with a number of events scheduled to benefit the charity Chest, Heart and Stroke.

"It was (operations director) Bryn Cunningham who suggested it," said Henry, who had a mini stroke on the morning he was due to take on South Africa with Ireland in 2014.

"It's something Ulster have never had before and something they want to start doing. It's totally up to what the player wants to do and I thought it would be good to put on a series of events that run the length of the year, and the charity Chest, Heart and Stroke want to use it as a springboard for everything they have coming up over the next 12 months.

"It just made sense to use this to engage with everybody. I've a few things up my sleeve with Malone Rugby Club and Wallace High School throughout the year too because that's where it all began."

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