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Iain Henderson reveals surprise at surgeon's decision that led to Ulster return in Leicester

Leicester 13 Ulster 14

Tigers tamed: Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune crosses for his try
Tigers tamed: Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune crosses for his try
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

For all that Iain Henderson can do on a rugby field, his powers of recovery off it might be just as impressive.

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Ulster's integral lock has become known as something of a quick healer over the years but his latest feat - returning from thumb surgery in five weeks rather than the projected 10 - is likely the most eye-catching of them all.

Even more so when the 26-year-old slotted straight back into Dan McFarland's starting line-up and claimed man-of-the-match honours as the province beat Leicester Tigers to book a return to the Champions Cup quarter-finals after an absence of five years.

"It was a goal of mine to come back early," he said afterwards.

"But I genuinely didn't have any clue that I was coming back and that I would be allowed to play until Tuesday afternoon.

"I trained fully on Tuesday before I went to see the surgeon, whether or not I should have (trained) is another thing, but I said to him 'look, I'm training fully, have good movement in it, strength in it', and thankfully the surgeon cleared me. He was happy for me to train the rest of the week and give it a rattle, and I've had no problems with it."

It was not a game that will win any prizes for aesthetics but the victory was the product of no little resolve, Ulster coming back from 13-0 down to win by a solitary point thanks to tries from Marty Moore and Robert Baloucoune.

"We knew they were going to be tough opposition, reflected Henderson. "At half-time we felt our backs were against the wall and that we had to come out and do something.

"Even at the start of start of the second half they came out and were going hard, so I think that's something we expected and we knew they weren't going to roll over easy.

"We knew we just had to stick to what we know we can do, not try and overplay or underplay, so we stuck to our gametime and it worked out well for us."

Named in Joe Schmidt's Ireland Six Nations squad last week, as of Saturday Henderson was unsure whether he'd be joining up with the national squad at their warm weather training camp in Portugal or left with Ulster to get some more game-time in Friday night's PRO14 encounter with Benetton at Kingspan.

"The guys who are going to Portugal, we're not a hundred per cent sure yet," Henderson revealed. "Joe likes to play his cards close to his chest, not just with you guys in the media but with ourselves as well.

"I'm ready for whatever Joe wants me to do. If he decides that I need some game time I'm happy to go out and play at Kingspan next week. If he wants me to put my feet up or a week then of course I'll do that too.

"But it's good to be able to go down there and I'm sure the other players will say this: "well done, it's great to see you beating the other big teams'.

"It's good to have people saying that to you and it's good to be part of a successful group. With Ireland, you feel like Ireland are going to do well so being able to go somewhere with players who are doing well, having done well ourselves, is a really good feeling.

"Equally, a lot of the players who haven't been involved in recent weeks they have been told that the onus is on them to step up and perform. Don't get me wrong, we have been doing unbelievably well in training.

"Guys like Adam McBurney, John Andrew, Jonny Stewart and Johnny McPhillips. It's players like that who prepare us for games like this and like last week and those guys probably don't get as much credit as they are due.

"They are all chomping at the bit to see who will play against Treviso (this) week when Rory Best and John Cooney are away or whoever else."

If indeed Henderson does immediately join up with Ireland, it's highly likely the next time he pulls on an Ulster jersey will be that semi-final at the end of March.

Dan McFarland will no doubt be glad he got one more game out of him. "He was man of the match, wasn't he?" smiled the coach. "Somebody described him as a towering presence and he is a towering presence.

"We have some good players, but Iain is magnificent.

"He adds physicality, he adds go-forward, composure. He's a top player.

"I know that everybody in Ireland will be pleased that he's back and getting some games under his belt."

The achievement of getting to the quarters at the first time of asking for McFarland should be noted, especially in a pool that contained last year's runners-up and beaten semi-finalists in Racing 92 and Scarlets.

That he has done so utilising previously unseen Academy players like Eric O'Sullivan, Baloucoune and Mike Lowry makes the place in the last eight all the more impressive.

"Obviously, I'm really pleased," he said. "In the changing-room sometimes we have a bit of a chat about how we played, but not really this week other than to say that the second-half performance showed everything about what we are.

"We had to turn around the game, I thought in all honesty in the first-half we were not even close to where we are capable of playing, not even close.

"In the second-half we turned that around to a large extent, some of our defence in the second-half was magnificent. Absolutely magnificent."

And how did he celebrate? One beer and then onto the laptop to prepare for Benetton.

The glamorous life of a rugby coach.

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