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Henderson will decide future 'soon' as Ulster and Ireland career hangs in the balance

 

Jonathan Bradley

If it was possible to buy stock in Iain Henderson, there's no doubting that now would be a good time to do so.

Since the man widely regarded as Rory Best's successor in the Ulster captaincy role signed his last contract in 2015, he has become a regular starter for Ireland, starred at a World Cup, and went on a Lions tour to New Zealand.

Now requiring a bump to an IRFU-funded central contract, the 25-year-old admitted last month that he had fielded offers from abroad but would be sitting down with Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt and Performance Director David Nucifora before making any decision on whether to follow the likes of Simon Zebo and Donncha Ryan out of Ireland and, as a result, the national side.

With at least one high-spending English club believed to have firmed up their interest, and Henderson a key part of plans for the 2019 World Cup, as well as a talismanic figure for his province who have produced all too few forwards of his calibre in recent years, it is a contract negotiation the powers that be can ill afford to let slip.

After starring for Ulster again in the crucial European win over Harlequins last weekend, he laughed off suggestions that his price was only moving in one direction, and admitted that in recent weeks the process has been left to his agent, Ulster's European Cup winning winger Andy Park.

"I don't think I can go and check the stocks and shares here," he joked. "Actually I haven't spoken a huge amount about it the last few weeks.

"I like to push it away and leave it to other people to kind of sort that out at the minute. With Europe, and being thrown in as captain at the end of last week, I'm just kind of keeping my hands clean of all that and concentrating on this role.

"Hopefully it'll all be sorted soon."

The Quins win once again only served to highlight Henderson's importance to the Ulster cause, not just in his performance but how he filled in for Rory Best when the skipper missed out thanks to an infected cut on his ankle.

He figures to lead the side out again when the same opposition come to Belfast on Friday night (7.45pm kick-off) in a game when another victory will provide a real shot in the arm for Ulster's hopes of returning to Europe's last eight for a first time since 2014.

Close to Best since he joined the Ulster set-up, Henderson has also seen the likes of Paul O'Connell at close quarters and, when having to fill the skipper's shoes, he aims to emulate how that duo led by example.

"I constantly spend a lot of time with Rory, over the summer, Ireland camps, Ulster training, and you learn an awful lot working with an awful lot of good leaders.

"At this stage, when I find out that I might be captaining the side, you sort of start to gather your thoughts, try to understand what previous leaders have done and what you can recall, (look at) why they were good leaders and take a bit of that.

"Probably the thing that stands out in my mind is that all the good leaders, they try and lead by their actions and show that if they try and play well and they're trying to do things, not only on the pitch but off the pitch in training, getting their analysis done, I think that's the best way. I think that's why Rory is one of the best captains.

"I think as captain, you have to rely an awful lot on (experienced) boys around you. As I was happy to take over the captaincy, they were happy to take leadership roles within the team too.

"I'm enjoying it and just trying to take it week by week, probably."

With Harlequins all but out of Europe, and Ulster having little margin for error in their quest for a quarter-final spot, Henderson still expects the Premiership outfit to be looking to avenge their defeat last time out.

"One thing we've spoken about already this week is that they're more or less out of the competition but that's the most dangerous thing," he said.

"We've got to realise that they're going to come back and they're not going to just turn up, roll over and play dead.

"We're going to have to work for it. You saw them the weekend before against Saracens, they'll go the full 80 and they'll win games in the 80th, 82nd, 83rd minute. We've got to make sure we're on top form and keep on pushing."

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