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Comment: Brave Henderson passes his Ulster leadership test


By Jonathan Bradley

As his director of rugby Les Kiss dryly noted after the 19-9 win over Wasps on Friday night, Iain Henderson's captaincy record now stands at 100%.

A senior figure around Kingspan, a 32-times capped Irish international and, as of last summer, a British and Irish Lion, the pivotal European victory was still the very first time the 25-year-old had been named skipper for his province.

And it was a rarity not just in his senior career but going back all the way to his early teens. Conor Spence, now a scrum-half for Malone, captained Henderson's Belfast Royal Academy side to the Schools' Cup final in 2010, leaving the lock going deep into the memory bank to recall when he was last handed the proverbial armband.

"I'm not sure Les wants to hear this but the last time was probably junior rugby in school," he said of his leadership CV with some amusement after seeing off the English visitors.

With Rory Best yet to debut this season thanks to a hamstring injury, Chris Henry out for last week at least with a larynx problem, and Andrew Trimble finding himself outside the matchday 23 over the last fortnight, Henderson became Kiss's fourth skipper of season in the important win.

But, if the man with a noted fondness for sleep and dubbed "llama" by his one time Ireland team-mate Donnacha O'Callaghan, hasn't always seemed like your typical captain, this was no case of last man standing.

For some time, he's been seen as the most likely successor to Rory Best when the indefatigable hooker eventually hangs up his boots.

"He's somebody that has a load of talent but, potentially to take the next step, he has to take more of a leadership role," said Best himself recently.

"We've seen him calling line-outs now, something that people 12 or 18 months ago would have said would never happen, but now he's done it in a massive games for Ireland and for the Lions. Now he has to take another step."

And while there may have been an occasion or two on Friday when it took a second to register that it was indeed his decision that the game was waiting for, he took that initial step confidently.

In a contest that had been punctuated only by penalties, the hosts were trailing 9-3 when a shrill blast of Ben Whitehouse's whistle had him weighing up his options - whether to play for the try or just cut the deficit.

Without too much deliberation, there was a nod towards the corner.

Fortune on this occasion favoured the brave, Charles Piutau and Jacob Stockdale creating the score that, while not pushing Ulster into the lead, swung momentum decidedly in their direction.

"When you watch a game and see a team make a decision like that on TV or from an outsider's point of view you can think, flip, that's brave, you maybe should have gone for the posts," Henderson said.

"However, you can definitely get a feel for the momentum of a game and I felt we were getting a lot of go forward ball, our forwards felt like we were on top of them, we felt our maul hadn't quite got to the level we wanted it to and we could make something of it, and we had that in the bag from the week.

"We knew from the short turnaround they'd be starting to lag at that time of the game and we just needed to get into their 22."

With his big decisions paying off, it was an experience he enjoyed, and one he believes was made all the easier by some of the older pros around him.

"I'd spoken to a fair few people," he said of his preparation. "I'd spoken to people within the squad, I'd spoken to Rob Herring, I'd had a good chat with Trimby and I'm constantly chatting with Besty as well.

"Similar to what I said beforehand, there's such a great support network of players around me, it's not my captaincy that won, it was a team effort. Obviously we've got a good few players out there who have got a few big games under their belt and that helps a lot when you've got to get the players up all around you.

"It made my job easier as captain than it could have been.

"I think with Robbie (Diack), Rob Herring, a lot of guys really led the pack; Lukey Marshall, Christian (Leali'ifano), all those guys in the back line just tied things together and, as I said, made my job a lot easier than I thought it would be."

Whether Henderson retains the captaincy for next Sunday's trip to La Rochelle remains up in the air, presumably dependant on Best's hamstring problem.

"Rory is working hard and we'll get a bit of feedback on what he does," added Kiss. "It's a week by week proposition for Rory at this stage. It would be nice to have someone with his experience in these big moments."

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