Belfast Telegraph

Henderson is relishing his growing influence on Ulster: Best


Lead role: Iain Henderson may replace Rory Best as skipper
Lead role: Iain Henderson may replace Rory Best as skipper
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Succession planning remains something of a dirty phrase in Ulster Rugby but, just as John Cooney somehow succeeded in replacing the irreplaceable in Ruan Pienaar, someone will soon have to step up and fill the gaping void left by Rory Best's retirement.

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Over the course of the past decade plus, the Ireland skipper has been the ultimate rarity at Kingspan Stadium - a constant. Through thick and thin, good and bad, he's been a talisman, a leader and, as one player put it recently, has essentially been Ulster Rugby.

Whether it be tomorrow in a Guinness PRO14 semi-final with Glasgow (7.35pm kick-off), or as he and the province hope next week in a fairytale finish with silverware on the line, before the month is out the 36-year-old will pull on the white jersey for the final time.

In his ever-capable understudy Rob Herring, Dan McFarland knows he has an Irish international primed to anchor his front-row on a more regular basis.

Having seemed doomed to be a one-cap wonder in 2014, the naturalised South African has forced his way back into Joe Schmidt's thinking with strong displays last November and on the summer tour of Australia.

Starting the big Champions Cup games moving forward will only help his standing, while he may yet join Best in his international swansong at Japan's World Cup later this year.

Having done so before, it would not be a surprise to see him take over the Ulster armband for next season and beyond.

In terms of the homegrown leader of the pack though, there seems only one candidate to step into Best's shoes - Iain Henderson.

Like Best, the lock is a British and Irish Lion, touring New Zealand in 2017 and returning home among the most unlucky not to feature in a Test, while, when fit, he seems an automatic selection in Schmidt's matchday squads.

In terms of a player who can drag a unit's performance up by the bootstraps, he is almost tailor-made to step up and take Best's place in the years to come.

The pair have always seemed close, often seen putting in the extras together once training has finished, but Best admits that when he first laid eyes on Henderson, back when the then back-rower had just lost a Schools' Cup final with Belfast Royal Academy, it wasn't immediately obvious what he was looking at.

"The first time I remember him, he was just out of school and he came to train with us," chuckled Best.

"There was barely a pick on him and he had this long, floppy hair. He didn't train much because he had a patellar tendon problem. We were all there doing pre-season, just running lengths, and there was this kid sitting on the wall watching us. You were there thinking, 'Who is this kid? He can't even train, what chance does he have?'

"He's done alright since then, so my judgement of ability obviously isn't that good."

The pair aren't exactly two of a kind, and Henderson admitted recently that he didn't see himself as a natural rugby talent. Laid-back, and with a seemingly legendary capacity to snooze among his team-mates, Henderson has had to grow into the leader he has become.

"He has matured over the last couple of years," reflected Best.

"He has a really good home life, he's a really supportive wife in Suzanne that helps him, he has a kid now which sometimes gives you a different perspective on life.

"That doesn't always help players but it really seems to have helped him.

"But I think he now understands his worth to Ulster. In his early career he might drift a bit, he had that natural ability that meant he could sort of pick it up and go.

"Over a few games a couple of years ago, he probably found that you can't get to the very top level like that because everyone has a certain amount of ability.

"I think what you've seen from him over the last 18 months to two years is somebody that understands the influence he has, how important he is. That when he prepares well, people see him preparing well. The work that he does with Dan and Aaron (Dundon) in the line-outs, he's in first thing in the morning getting that done. I don't think you'd have seen that four years ago."

Best will be banishing the thought that his Ulster career could come to an end tomorrow, but the uncertain nature of knockout rugby leaves him still having to field the question. As he chases silverware to sign off, understandably though he wouldn't have it any other way.

"To play in some really big games to finish up, and to hopefully go out on top, that's something I always wanted to do," he said.

"In an Ulster shirt, I keep mentioning back 12 months ago even though I don't like to, if I had retired then.

"You want to leave the shirt in a better place and you wouldn't have looked at the last 14 years, you'd have looked at that season and I think now, to be in a squad that's progressing, I feel like I'm leaving with the squad in a good place.

"It's not down to me but I'm proud to be a part of that.

"If Ulster win something this season, it'll be fantastic but if it's next season or the season after that then I'll still be a supporter.

"I'll still have a huge amount of pride in the part I played, that might not have felt the case 12 months ago."

Glasgow vs Ulster

Guinness PRO14 Championship - Semi-Final

Scotstoun Stadium, Tomorrow, 7.35pm

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