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Iain Henderson: I actively aimed to defy expectations with injury return and now I'm unbelievably excited for PRO14 final

Skipper reveals his mindset ahead of shock return in title decider

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Listen up: returning skipper Iain Henderson takes a lead role during Captain’s Run at Kingspan yesterday ahead of tonight’s Pro14 final

Listen up: returning skipper Iain Henderson takes a lead role during Captain’s Run at Kingspan yesterday ahead of tonight’s Pro14 final

On high: Ulster ace Iain Henderson during Captain’s Run ahead of the PRO14 final

On high: Ulster ace Iain Henderson during Captain’s Run ahead of the PRO14 final

Photo by John Dickson / DICKSOND

Listen up: returning skipper Iain Henderson takes a lead role during Captain’s Run at Kingspan yesterday ahead of tonight’s Pro14 final

Ulster skipper Iain Henderson admits that when he finds himself out injured as he has these past months, the team's physios can quickly become sick of hearing him ask just how quickly he can get back into the action.

It remains to be seen how they feel about his attitude to their answers.

"As soon as I hear a timeline, I say to myself, 'If that's what they're telling me it could be, then how long can I take off that again?'," said the 28-year-old as his latest swift recovery act sees him return a month ahead of schedule following hip surgery and just in time to take his place in the Ulster line-up for tonight's Guinness PRO14 final against Leinster.

"I've said this to the physio so many times, if I'm not feeling right, I'll not continue to do something, and I'll be honest with him with every question they ask me.

"I couldn't explain how much they (the physios) have done for me and the massive role they played in getting me back. They were probably sick of hearing me ask the question, 'When can I get back playing?'

"They're brutally honest with me and I am the same with them. When we took that to the surgeon, showed him the outline of our plan and what we wanted to do, he seemed happy enough.

"Like every operation, the surgeon has to clear it. It was a week or two ago that I got chatting to him and he was happy that if I was continuing to get through the work at the rate I was without any symptoms he would be happy for me to be involved in the game."

The boost for Ulster is substantial, the return of their captain when he originally seemed certain to be out until next season sure to be a mental lift as they seek their first silverware in more than 14 years.

Such is the turnover of players in recent seasons, Henderson is one of only a handful of those left in the squad who were in this position in 2013, coming off the bench when Leinster beat the northern province in that year's final at the RDS Arena despite Mark Anscombe's men topping the table after the regular season.

That, and a host of other near misses, have meant the trophy drought has long been talked about as a monkey on the team's back, especially in light of their three provincial rivals all having celebrated titles in the interim.

"Towards the end of that (2013) season, I thought, 'We finished top of the league, so why don't we win the league now?'

"Playing that game down there was a massive frustration because of the fact that we gave up the home advantage that we had to the opposition (because Kingspan Stadium was being redeveloped at the time).

"It's probably been a surprise that we haven't been able to proceed to a final since. It was a difficult game and Leinster were well on their way to being the powerhouse that they are. But it is probably frustrating for us that we haven't been able to come up against them in another final since."

Ulster do, of course, have more recent experience of going up against Leo Cullen's men in a high-stakes contest, albeit not one with a league title on the line, having gone toe-to-toe with their near-neighbours in last season's Champions Cup quarter-finals before losing by only a late penalty.

"That was a fair few of this team's first experience playing knockout rugby for Ulster," said Henderson. "Although the result was massively disappointing, the guys that were involved loved the experience and are champing at the bit to get another dig at Leinster.

"I wouldn't necessarily say it's a template. We performed close to the best we performed that season on the day and it still wasn't good enough.

"We had a few mishaps that day, as we did in the previous final. That stays with a lot of the players, they thoroughly enjoyed it but it was a massive upset to a lot of guys early in their careers and to some of us well into our careers.

"There is no shying away from the fact that Leinster are right up there at the top of their game, at the top of Europe and at the top of our league. That's where they are setting the bar and where we are trying to get to."

Rather than being weighed down by the history, Henderson wants to tap into the excitement over the opportunity to finally end the unwanted streak.

"Silverware with Ulster is something that has obviously been elusive in everybody's career here. It's something that would be massive," he said.

"(The last trophy) is a distant memory for anyone in the current playing squad. Rob Lyttle chatted about it, saying he's looking forward to ending the wait, and I think we all are actually.

"I'm unbelievably excited to see what we can do. We've been building over the last few months, if not the last few seasons, and I still don't think we're anywhere near where we can get to yet, but I think we're on a massive upward curve.

"That excitement is the overwhelming factor that I want to bring (tonight), I want the guys to understand how excited I am about playing this game.

"It's been frustrating for a lot of people that (silverware) hasn't happened because we know the direction we are going.

"Hopefully, (tonight) we can take another step further in that direction."

Belfast Telegraph