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Iain Henderson is backing Ulster's 'incredible' young guns to fire in the heat of Toulouse battle

Skipper impressed by fledgling stars in preparation for crunch tie


Relishing it: Skipper Iain Henderson is backing Ulster to come good in France

Relishing it: Skipper Iain Henderson is backing Ulster to come good in France

�INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Relishing it: Skipper Iain Henderson is backing Ulster to come good in France

Growing up in a rugby-mad household, the young Iain Henderson was well aware of the esteem in which tomorrow's European opponents Toulouse were held in the early years of this century.

He could be forgiven, though, for assuming that at the very least his family would have put their admiration on hold until after this quarter-final. Not so, it seems.

"Toulouse are one of those big names that have always been there, their trophy record shows that and shows the high regard they should be held in," said the Ulster skipper ahead of a trip to the Stade Ernest-Wallon.

"That's something that goes with them. Growing up, I don't remember any specific games but I remember my brother always wearing a Toulouse jersey, one of the old school ones.

"I saw him sporting it recently actually."

Something of an elder statesman in this side at only 28-years-old, Henderson knows that many of the men he'll be going to battle with tomorrow hadn't long picked up a rugby ball when Toulouse won the fourth and most recent of their European crowns back in 2010, setting a mark only since matched by Leinster.

Once again Dan McFarland has put huge faith in youth for tomorrow's game with six of his starting line-up Academy products 25-years-old or younger.

Going into such a high-stakes game, even if there will be only a few thousand home fans in attendance, would be a daunting prospect for more established names but Henderson has been amazed by how accomplished the likes of James Hume and Mike Lowry are at a young age.

"One of the things I've been asked recently is, 'What's it like being captain?' and when I think back to when I was younger, I thought a captain had to do so much more," said Henderson.

"I feel like the guys in the squad make my job so much easier, the young guys take on so much. I feel like when I was a young guy some of us needed to be reeled in every now and again, and now the young guys are incredible professionals.

"The likes of James Hume, Michael Lowry, I could list so many of them, they're so good at training. They're never late, they're always adding ideas, they're pulling up guys for not doing things right. When I was younger, I didn't do that; I had to learn the qualities these guys have already. That's really encouraging. I take great confidence in it."

While Toulouse will be skippered by the 37-year-old two-time World Cup-winning All Black Jerome Kaino, their general age profile is hardly that of grizzled veterans either.

With Les Bleus duo Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont pulling the strings at half-back, their own youth movement is a huge driving force behind the resurgence that has raised hopes of a first Champions Cup title in a decade.

"They work well together," said Henderson of the young stars providing the heartbeat to Toulouse's attacking tempo.

"They add a bit of spark to the game and they're guys we've had to watch playing internationally against them.

"They've been together the last couple of seasons and I've played against them both seasons (in the Six Nations).

"For being so young, the amount of experience they bring is massive, and that's something we've been trying to work on recently too in terms of our young guys bringing experience - James Hume, Tom O'Toole, Mike Lowry, the likes of those guys who all started the (PRO14) final.

"Those guys nowadays are expected to bring so much more than they might have been before.

"In years gone by there were a lot of guys looking to stalwarts to impose themselves on the game, but Dupont and Ntamack do that in spades despite how young they are.

"They run the game and they like to play a fast-paced game with Toulouse. That's perfect for us, we love to play like that and we'll definitely try and push their big pack around the pitch as best we can."

Ulster will counter with their own usual half-back pairing of Billy Burns and John Cooney, the latter coming back into the side after his shock omission from last week's starting team for the PRO14 final.

Belfast Telegraph