Belfast Telegraph

Ulster star Chris Henry: My health issues are in the past... now I'm stronger than ever before

By Michael Sadlier

He arrives brimming with energy and enthusiasm, which is understandable given that Chris Henry only returned to playing at the back end of last month after the trauma of November's health scare which required heart surgery.

As ever, he is eager to articulate the enormity of tonight's game for Ulster's top four ambitions - win and they are in, with a home semi-final then the next target - against their high-achieving but under-pressure neighbours.

Yet no sit-down with the 30-year-old can side-step what occurred last autumn when he suffered a mini-stroke in his Dublin hotel room just a few hours before he was due to win his 17th cap for Ireland against South Africa.

It plunged Henry into a dark place where, for a time, he thought his playing career was over.

He recalls waiting on a phone call for the results of a scan which if it had shown that the clot he suffered had originated from his neck artery - rather than the hole discovered in his heart - would have been that regarding his hopes of ever taking to a pitch again.

"Without a doubt they were worrying times," the flanker explains though then having heart surgery, shortly after the incident, to correct the defect which had caused his issue meant that the route back to playing at least became an option.

"The first six to eight weeks were without a doubt the toughest for me," says Henry.

"Physically I felt fine straight away, but it was more any time I had pins and needles in my arm I'd be freaking out thinking, 'this is going to happen again'.

"But it is very natural to have that and luckily it has gone."

His recovery is now complete and he even managed to make it back to playing earlier than anticipated with a thumbs-up from the surgeon giving him the chance to make the bench for the home game with Cardiff at the end of last month - albeit a late call that week - which then led to a full 80 minutes against Connacht a fortnight ago.

"I was targeting 20 minutes for the Connacht game but it just happened with the way I was off blood thinners, and with all the tests they had done, the surgeon made the call that if Ulster wanted to play me (against Cardiff) they could," he continued.

"I have had two rescans on the heart, regarding that wee device that is in there which has sealed the hole, and as far as the surgeon is concerned that is me for life now. There is no chance of anything like that happening again so in regards to monitoring it there is absolutely nothing, no tablets, no medication. Pretty much a case of 'you've done your time and you're healthy and fit'.

"There have been no side-effects from the mini-stroke so, basically, you're left to your own devices."

Now, he is just eager to build up his match fitness and get Ulster over the line regarding the primary aim of just making the play-offs by beating Leinster tonight.

"If there is ever a game where it (his form) has to come out pretty quickly it is going to be this week.

"I'm back stronger than I have ever been, so it's about getting that match fitness up very quickly," he says with typical conviction.

But, of course, this is Leinster, the side who have caused Ulster so many problems in the past but who now must come away with a win from Belfast to keep their own PRO12 top four hopes afloat.

Added to the visitors' difficulty - and Ulster's apparent advantage - is that Leinster must engineer the right result a mere five days after losing out to Toulon following an energy-sapping extra time in the last four of the Champions Cup.

"It will be a tight game but hopefully the home factor and their short (five-day) turnaround will give us the edge," says Henry of facing fifth-placed Leinster.

"Actually, that five-day turnaround is probably going to be the biggest factor and we need to use that. We have a massive opportunity and we know that it's coming to the do or die time for them."

His own eagerly awaited head-to-head clash with Sean O'Brien will be a mammoth task for the newly returned Henry but he will certainly not shirk from the job at hand.

"It's a massive challenge and we (Ulster) have to try and negate what he brings to the game," he adds with a smile before focusing more generally on tonight's showdown.

"We're going to have to take them to that hard place and it's also time to take the chance that we have created (for ourselves) at this stage of the season."

Henry is especially eager to now make the most of everything on offer.

Sadlier's mach verdict:

Though naturally loathe to admit it, Ulster hold all the cards for tonight against a side they have so often struggled to beat in the past. Win and they have a nailed-on top four place while Leinster are the ones facing the exit door. This time, it really is advantage Ulster.

Belfast Telegraph


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