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Chris Henry: Iain Henderson sets the tone as we get to see very best of Ulster



Leading way: Iain Henderson showed his class in Ulster’s win over Edinburgh

Leading way: Iain Henderson showed his class in Ulster’s win over Edinburgh

Rob Herring

Rob Herring

Leading way: Iain Henderson showed his class in Ulster’s win over Edinburgh

A PRO14 play-off place and a Champions Cup spot all off the back of a return to the last-eight of Europe. What a difference 12 months have made for Ulster Rugby.

The side have already exceeded all expectations we had for them last summer and the dark days of last season really do feel like they're in the rear-view mirror as the squad prepare for Connacht in the league quarter-finals next month.

Speaking of stark contrasts, Ulster's two trips to Scotland in recent weeks certainly have been chalk and cheese.

Facing Glasgow and Edinburgh in consecutive weeks, there was always a danger that, after a day all involved would wish to forget in Scotstoun, the players would have a distinct case of deja vu.

From training, to captain's run, to the drive to the airport, there'll certainly have been some feeling of 'here we go again' for the guys but thankfully, where it mattered most - on the field - there were no similarities to be seen seven days on.

Things that malfunctioned against Glasgow were back up to the required standard in Murrayfield and, while the backline provided some moments of magic to secure the bonus-point win, this was another victory forged by this ever-improving forward unit.

The most obvious difference, of course, was the presence of Iain Henderson.

In the absence of Rory Best, Henderson - who captained the side - takes on the mantle of the team's tone-setter and from early on you could see he had Dan McFarland's fight for every inch mantra in his mind.

The sideline scrap maybe isn't what Dan had in mind but Henderson certainly showed he was ready for a battle. Brazilian ju jitsu used to be a part of our pre-season and the big man seemed to be calling on that experience as he handed off three Edinburgh men who seemed to be more focused on him than the play.

In terms of all-round performance, Henderson was well deserving of his man of the match award.

A few injuries have meant he's missed the odd game here and there this season but when fit to be unleashed, it feels like the opposition have been feeling his full force every time he has crossed the line.

Naturally you want him out there each and every week but it'll be interesting to see if he's managed in a way that means the province get the most out of him in the biggest of games moving forward.

Rob Herring is someone whose impacts maybe don't catch the eye in the same way in terms of the big turnovers or dominant tackles but he's found a rich vein of form as the season draws to a close. He's a player with a great engine and there are times when it feels like he's everywhere on a pitch, making a tackle, back on his feet and making another. Again, Marcell Coetzee showed what he brings to the party and Jordi Murphy had another great game too.

It was quite the day for Jordi, starting out with social media rallying round to help find his lost dog and ending with the try that set Ulster on their way. Hopefully Charlie the Golden Retriever stays safe and sound the morning of the quarter-final.

That Ulster know their first-round game will be against Connacht in Kingspan Stadium comes after Benetton lost to Munster while the province were applying the finishing touches to their Murrayfield victory. The Italian side will have been thoroughly disappointed to drop a game at home against visitors who undoubtedly had their eye on this weekend's Champions Cup semi-final.

I'd still back them to beat Zebre next weekend though and seal their own place in the play-offs. Once they're there, there's no telling how far they can go. They've been playing some great rugby and they're certainly not a team I'd relish facing at this point in time. Others will be saying the same about Ulster.

I wrote after the narrow loss to Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter-final that the performance in the Aviva was proof that the side could go on to win the PRO14 and Friday in Murrayfield backs up that theory.

There are tough games ahead but at their best, Ulster can win them.

Irish pro game continues to get even stronger

The disappointing Six Nations may have put a few doubts in the mind of the public, but the PRO14 tables once again show the state of the pro game in Irish Rugby is in rude health.

We've already had one interprovincial derby at the sharp end of European competition and could yet have another depending on how Leinster and Munster get on in their semi-finals this weekend.

And we're already guaranteed one in the PRO14 with Ulster taking on Connacht.

Moreover, it means that all four provinces have qualified on merit for the top tier of Europe and that's not to be sniffed at. Locally, there was reason to cheer too with Ballynahinch securing promotion to the top tier of the All Ireland League.

It's been a few years since we had an Ulster team in 1A and to win the division outright really is a great achievement. Fair play to my old Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin and everyone at the club. With Malone in the play-offs, the Creagagh Red Sox could yet be joining them. We'll be travelling to UCC which will be tough but there's still the belief that we can pull it off.

Getting ready to take over as head coach next season is already keeping me plenty busy, and no matter what division it is, I'm excited to get properly stuck in.

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