Belfast Telegraph

Henderson is hungry to rack up minutes on the pitch

By Michael Sadlier

It's like a gnawing hunger which can't be sated or an irritating itch which just can't be fully shaken off. Yes, this is how it feels to have got close before having to walk away from a season empty-handed.

Iain Henderson can at least produce his two Six Nations winning medals, but when it comes to playing for Ulster, well, there is nothing but those accompanying feelings of discomfort.

It's nine years since an Ulster side last took ownership of silverware and the wait has become intolerable even for the younger players, including 23-year-old Henderson who is at blindside flanker today against Connacht.

And how he wants to put this noxious statistic to bed. Europe is long gone, but the PRO12 remains very much up for grabs for Ulster with just three games remaining after today's game before it's play-off time.

"It would be fantastic," Henderson admits of getting his hands on a PRO12 winning medal, "and at the minute it's wholly realistic.

"That's our goal and we want to get a home play-off (by finishing first or second at the end of the regulation season) and then we have the home final as well.

"Those two things are in our favour so we've just got to make sure that we put everything into these four games coming up now.

"We need to ensure we try and get that home semi and then progress on to get that medal," he adds with notable determination.

Mind you, the Galway Sportsground will be no soft landing and if Ulster play anywhere near as badly as they did when the Dragons got the better of them early last month, then Connacht - who, in sixth, have just got their noses in front of Edinburgh and the Scarlets to claim a Champions Cup place - could also inflict huge damage on the visitors' ambitions.

"In the matches where we've had all our international players back, we know that we can do a good job," he says before providing a reminder of how things can go badly in Galway.

"It was three years ago and we went down, at this end of the season, the year we got to the (Heineken) final and that game was my first (Ulster) cap (off the bench). We rested a few boys and we ended up losing.

"If you're down there with the wrong mindset, you're going to get beaten," he adds, though this time it should be different with Ulster being close to full strength.

Today will only be his fifth game for Ulster this season after missing all of the campaign up until January's final European game with Leicester following hip surgery last September.

And he had hoped to be playing alongside his housemate Stuart Olding, but the intervention of another injury - in this case a season-ender for Olding - has kept the school friends apart again. It's a troubling scenario but there is little time for reflection as we hit the business end of the season.

Indeed, playing Connacht will bring Henderson level with the number of times he has played for Ireland throughout the successful Six Nations - when he had five cameos off the bench with his longest stint being the 18 minutes against Scotland - so at least there is no doubting his freshness.

The Galway game should also see him get through an 80-minute workload for only the third time this season.

"It's not ideal (at this stage) to have played as many games for your country as your province," he admits. "But given my hip injury that's just the way it's panned out. Hopefully, I'll now rack up a few more Ulster games.

"I prefer getting games, so it's unfortunate that we're not in Europe as we're having two-week breaks between games but I think that suits us well as we'll be fresh for the last games."

Henderson is determined to keep things going to the PRO12's closing weekend and wants to add to his collection of medals.

That final day of the Six Nations was a blur, with the usual intensity of the game replaced by the almost unbearable tension of England's clash with France as the squad watched it all unfold.

"I wouldn't say I was laid-back but I was more so than others. I reckoned me jumping about wasn't going to affect what would happen at Twickenham," he admits.

The next goal is to get more game-time in the green shirt where he is seen as a second row - of his 17 Tests he has only had three starts - but, right now, the hunger games are all about Ulster.

Belfast Telegraph


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