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Scotland v Ireland: Henderson determined to seize Six Nations surprise opportunity

By Jonathan Bradley

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt says he has never been let down by Iain Henderson before... and doesn't expect to be tomorrow.

The Ulster lock was the one surprise selection in yesterday's team announcement for the Six Nations opener against Scotland in Edinburgh, keeping his place in the engine room from the win over Australia that concluded the Autumn Series.

The 24-year-old will be winning his 29th cap in Murrayfield, where he previously came off the bench in 2015's title win, but it will be just his second start in the championship.

Indeed, after missing 2016 thanks to a serious hamstring issue, it will be almost three years since his first and only time in the run-on side in this competition, but his head coach had no hesitation in putting him forward when Donnacha Ryan emerged as a fitness doubt.

"Iain has done a super job for us in the past," said Schmidt.

"Donnacha had a niggly medial ligament so he didn't train last week. He trained on Tuesday really for the first time.

"He has been super for us in recent times but it is a very tight turnaround and we just had uncertainty around him. He came through training really well on Tuesday but we wanted a bit more certainty than that," said Schmidt.

Henderson himself is eagerly anticipating the challenge that awaits against Vern Cotter's confident hosts.

"We know we have to knuckle down and get our own detail right and concentrate on ourselves," he said. "We know what we can do right and do well. We've proven that in the past.

"We just need to do our homework and make sure we get the detail right."

Deployed in the second-row, even if Devin Toner will be the man calling the line-out, Henderson's set-piece work will come under extra scrutiny in what is expected to be a rain-lashed Edinburgh.

An area of his game he continues to improve after taking on more and more responsibility with his home province, the Academy man is expecting quite the battle against the Scots, and in particular lock brothers Richie and Jonny Gray.

"We've looked at them in depth and we know they put a fair bit of pressure on you, and they're one of the better contesting teams in the Six Nations.

"When we function well, we know we can win ball off a lot of teams in this tournament," he said.

"In terms of their attack, they've options there, the Gray brothers, and a fully jumping back-row, but we need to make sure we take away as many of those as possible."

Henderson's inclusion is far from the only eye-catching Ulster selection with Tommy Bowe, who is among the replacements, back in green for the first time since sustaining a serious knee injury in the World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina back in the autumn of 2015.

Paddy Jackson, meanwhile, will also be making what is a rare Six Nations start in the absence of usual out-half Johnny Sexton.

The Ulsterman made an international debut in this fixture four years ago, and started the next two games of that season's championship, but has made just four substitute appearances in the competition since.

The 25-year-old has proven himself ready for such a stage in the past eight months, however, guiding the side to victories over South Africa and Australia.

And vice-captain Jamie Heaslip believes Jackson will step up again tomorrow.

"Johnny's injury gives someone else an opportunity to step up and Jacko has stepped up plenty of times," he said.

"It's another opportunity for Jacko to step up again. And, for Keats (replacement Ian Keatley), if he gets an opportunity, it's a chance to shine.

"I don't think the team has ever relied on one player. It hasn't done for a long time.

"Rugby is a sport that you can't…it's as simple as that.

"Too many things go on on the field, too many positions are quite skill specific.

"Granted, Johnny is in a quite influential role, the 9 and 10 tend to be, they handle the balls most and direct in general.

"He's a great player but we've played many a game without Johnny and had success.

"And the same with all different players who have been in and out of the side. Johnny would say the same as well, in order for this group to be successful going forward, it needs to be a successful group, it needs to be a strong group.

"It's about the group, it's not about any one," he said.

"We have a leadership group, we have players who at times haven't been available, haven't been starting even, that are in that group.

"The group is pretty fluid in dynamic anyway because of injuries and stuff like that.

"So, look, you'd like to be picking from a full deck. I don't know a season when a squad, any squad, club or country, have been able to pick from a full deck.

"We've got to build on that you know, especially going forward."

With Italy to come in Rome next weekend, it looks like Jackson will again be the front-runner to wear the ten shirt with Schmidt adding that Sexton had only an "outside chance" of facing the Azzurri.

"There's no greater frustration than for Johnny himself," added the Kiwi.

"He is probably frustrated that he did the injury in Castres and that's hung over to now.

"I think he has played about 82 minutes for the national team in the last eight Test matches so for us it is a real frustration.

"In the three Six Nations I have been involved with, Johnny has dominated the number ten position, so we are still hopeful that he can come back in and still do that for us.

"At the same time Paddy has trained really well and had some really good experience in recent times for Ireland."

Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Huw Jones, Alex Dunbar, Tommy Seymour, Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw (capt), Allan Dell, Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson, Richie Gray, Jonny Gray, Ryan Wilson, Hamish Watson, Josh Strauss.

Replacements: Ross Ford, Gordon Reid, Simon Berghan, Tim Swinson, John Barclay, Ali Price, Duncan Weir, Mark Bennett.

Ireland: Rob Kearney (Leinster), Keith Earls (Munster), Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw (both Leinster), Simon Zebo (Munster), Paddy Jackson (Ulster), Conor Murray (Munster), Jack McGrath (Leinster), Rory Best (Ulster, capt), Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner (both Leinster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), CJ Stander (Munster), Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip (both Leinster).

Replacements: Niall Scannell (Munster), Cian Healy (Leinster), John Ryan (Munster), Ultan Dillane (Connacht), Josh Van der Flier (Leinster), Kieran Marmion (Connacht), Ian Keatley (Munster), Tommy Bowe (Ulster).

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