As Ulster cross their fingers that their heavy artillery will be available to face Clermont at the Stade Marcel Michelin on Saturday, Iain Henderson has admitted his recent injury was a case of being struck by the imaginary ‘sniper’ in the stands.
The skipper has not played any rugby since beating the All Blacks in the Aviva Stadium last month, falling victim to a hamstring injury while warming-up for Ireland’s following match against Argentina a week later.
“My injuries always seem to come at the most bizarre times in the most bizarre places, unfortunately,” said Henderson. “But, again, it’s frustrating that it happened during the warm-up. All week it had been fine, and then (in the) last five seconds of the warm-up...some sniper decided to get me in the back of the leg.
“Look, it’s been going well, I’ve been doing a bit of running and it’s been feeling good. So, again, (I’m) just trying to follow the right protocols for a hamstring injury and, hopefully, it’s going to be looking good.”
While Dan McFarland said Ulster would wait until closer to kick-off before confirming those who will and won’t be available for the trip to the Auvergne, the dawning of another European season marks Henderson’s tenth campaign in the various iterations of this competition.
Much has changed both on and off the field for the two-time British and Irish Lion since making his Heineken Cup bow against Castres back in October 2012 and he admits it is hard to wrap his head around the idea that he’ll celebrate his 30th birthday between this season’s pool stages and knock-outs.
“It’s completely mind-blowing, the fact that I’m going to be 30 very soon,” he said. “I still feel like a kid, and looking around the squad it’s frightening to be here and you’re counting them on one hand, the number of players that were here when I started. And, in my head, they’re all still young players, too, like me but it’s not the case.
“But, no, it’s good. I think it’s (still) as enjoyable as it’s ever been; it definitely feels different. I think the difference in how you prepare for a game 10 years ago (compared) to now is very different in terms of the week’s training, the week’s prep, and what you do after the games is probably a fair bit different, being married with two kids compared to being single and 20 years old. So, it’s definitely way different, but equally as enjoyable.”
While over the past 12 months he has perhaps played the best and most consistent rugby of a career that has already yielded 64 caps, that impending milestone birthday is a reminder that even while his form shows no drop off, he is closer to the end of his career than the start.
If it were to all to end tomorrow, it would be the lack of club silverware to match his achievements with Ireland that would rankle the most.
Four Champions Cup quarter-finals, two league finals and last year’s run in the Challenge Cup all stick in the mind.
“Obviously, we’ve had a lot of disappointments. Winning semi-finals has been brilliant and not being able to do it on a final day has been frustrating.
“If I was to retire now, that would probably be the big regret, that the performance never came on the day of a final. So hopefully I might get another couple of shots to try to right the wrongs.”
To do so will require a string of strong performances without the momentum-sapping blips that have been such a long-running habit.
After losing to Connacht in the Aviva Stadium back in October, Dan McFarland reflected that his side seemed to struggle with being favourites, an idea backed up by last weekend’s loss to Ospreys just seven days on from finally toppling Leinster in Dublin.
“I’ve said this before in the media: when we don’t win, no one’s trying not to win,” Henderson added. “Everyone wants to win.
“Obviously, that’s the way sport is sometimes and it’s frustrating. It just kind of feels like for the first part of my career, it felt like we were just watching them come and go. And maybe the last two or three, four years, it feels like we’re maybe actively trying to change things, to make it better, which is good.
“So hopefully over the next few seasons, if we get a few more shots we might be able to change that.”