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Henderson hopeful his future lies in the white jersey of Ulster

Connacht v Ulster; Guinness PRO14 Championship; Galway Sportsground, Saturday, 7:35pm

By Jonathan Bradley

Iain Henderson will not be putting a deadline on sorting out his Ulster and Ireland future, despite negotiations seemingly set to drag on beyond Christmas.

Last week Peter O'Mahony, who had previously said he wanted his own deal wrapped up in time for the new year, and Tadhg Furlong both inked fresh terms with the IRFU, leaving Henderson, his skipper Rory Best and Munster's CJ Stander as the primary outstanding business moving into 2018.

Despite interest from elsewhere, Henderson has maintained he would like to stay at home provided he is offered market value but, having signed his expiring terms all the way back in early 2015, he is due both a central contract and a significant pay bump given his exploits for club, country, and, indeed, the British and Irish Lions since.

"Hopefully nowhere, all being well," he laughed when asked where he'd be going next year.

"It has been difficult because of the run of games that we've had and how intense training has been.

"The two European games were so close together and just off the back of the autumn (Tests) so there has been a bit of a delay with being back up and down to Dublin. Look, we'll see hopefully over the next number of weeks.

"Currently I don't have a date in my head but the sooner I have it done then the sooner it isn't on my plate as something to deal with.

"But, as you know, I'm quite laid-back. My agent will worry about all that and that takes a massive weight off my shoulders so it doesn't take away from my rugby performances. I'll let him sort that out. That's what he's probably there for, isn't it?"

Given his age profile, standing within the squad and his position, there are arguably few players in Irish rugby more valuable at present to their province and, presuming a deal is done, he remains the heir apparent to Best as the side's captain and spiritual leader.

Having led the side again through their back-to-back wins over Harlequins, it has been clear what the Ulster jersey means to the man both in how he dragged the team through a real test of character in the away fixture, then after Friday's victory when television cameras cut to the dressing room and it was him front and centre in the celebrations.

"It is just a team song that we sing at the end after every win," he said of a scene not usually broadcast.

"We lift the jersey above our head and we get to throw a wet jersey at whoever we want, chanting and yelling like hooligans.

"After a hard-fought game the last thing you want to do is jump and tire yourself out even more but it's probably one of the best bits of the night.

"A few of the new boys wonder, when they come in and look at what everyone is doing, and getting on like idiots, but they all buy into it. It's great craic."

That idea of buying into the traditions of Ulster rugby have increasingly come under the microscope of course, what with two more Leinster natives pitching up at Kingspan Stadium for next season.

Marty Moore - who has been at Wasps for the past two seasons - and Jordi Murphy will join the likes of John Cooney, Alan O'Connor and Nick Timoney in leaving behind roots of a blue hue.

For Henderson, though, myriad accents about the camp are something of a non-issue.

"It's something we've spoken about before, trying to let the boys who come up know what we're about, how we have our own identity," he said.

"We're not just a feeder club for Leinster who'll pick up the scraps. The boys who have come up have really related to it.

"John is really enjoying himself, and a prime example is Alan O'Connor.

"He didn't get the opportunities that he should have got at Leinster but he's been here for three or four seasons and I think he's a top quality player for us.

"I think he is someone who really buys into it. Al would probably call himself an Ulsterman now."

With professional rugby naturally bringing an increased homogenisation, the lock adds that every effort is already being made to protect what an Ulster cap represents.

"To say what makes us different from other provinces is difficult to say because I've never played for any of the others, I've never felt what that is like. At Ulster we are quite proud of our values and our fanbase and the facilities we have got, but also, the history behind the club," he said.

"Tommy Bowe heads up a committee that once or twice a month has past players coming in and getting them back in and involved around the squad," he added.

"They have a chat with the younger lads and just give them a feel for what it means for other local players, what it meant for them to play for Ulster and how proud they were to wear the white jersey."

Henderson himself, it is hoped, will still be wearing it for some time to come.

Belfast Telegraph

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