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I'm staying to help Ulster build a proud legacy that matches other provinces: Henderson

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Having seen the national side take care of business in the Six Nations, the IRFU did likewise off the pitch yesterday by securing the future of Ulster duo Rory Best and Iain Henderson, as well as Leinster full-back Rob Kearney.

Best's long-mooted deal will take him up to the end of the World Cup in 2019, where he will look to add to an already glittering CV as Ireland skipper.

The hooker, who will be 37 by the time of the tournament, has already broken new ground as the captain, beating the All Blacks, winning in South Africa and clinching the second Grand Slam of his career.

The one long-running hoodoo left in Irish rugby is a failure to ever make it beyond the World Cup quarter-final stages, with the desire to make the last four sure to become an ever narrowing focus between now and the big kick-off in Japan.

With Kearney, fantastic during the just-finished Six Nations, having inked a similar deal, the longest pact signed in D4 was belonging to Henderson, who has signed on until the summer of 2021. Since penning his previous deal, the Ulster lock has starred in a World Cup, become an Ireland regular and went on a Lions tour, with this his first fully centrally funded contract.

There will, of course, be plenty of relief felt in Belfast that the IRFU have concluded deals with two of their key men to stay with Ulster. Head coach Jono Gibbes, who himself will depart at the end of this season, believes the pair will be key in instilling the winning habits required to turn around the struggling outfit.

"I think absolutely having people like that (is key)," said the man who experienced a winning culture with the All Blacks, Leinster and Clermont.

"They are quality people, they are locals as well, which is a great thing.

"First and foremost, they are consistent performers. For Rory to have played over 100 Tests for Ireland, he is a competitive guy and those kind of areas like consistency about how they go about their business, we have all seen the consistency they have on the park and I think it is a great thing to have that.

"And their consistency and their quality helps those guys who are up and coming to see what it looks like, what the very top of the game looks like, how meticulous their preparation is, it educates the next generation coming through.

"You've got a warrior like Rory and you admire how he goes about his business. Sometimes on a Tuesday you look at him and you think, 'This is going to be a bit rough', but then he's ready to go.

"There's a few games that he's had out here, he's a warrior. So there's guys like that you can learn a hell of a lot from. There's things you pick up off them that matter, it's about picking up on experiences like that and using them somewhere else."

Henderson had drawn plenty of interest from elsewhere but the man seen by many as the province's future captain said he wanted to restore the side's fortunes to a level akin to their more successful Irish rivals.

"I am delighted and extremely proud to extend my playing career in Ireland for a further three years," said the 26-year-old who will soon become a father for the first time.

"The Irish rugby set-up is one of the best in world rugby and, since turning professional, I have been able to develop in an environment that has seen both provincial and national teams be part of some fantastic days and indeed some challenging times over the past seasons.

"I am extremely confident that, with both Ulster and Ireland, we will continue to meet those challenges head on. There is currently some exciting talent throughout Ulster and Irish rugby and it is my ambition to continue to push for further honours at both provincial and national level.

"As a proud Ulsterman, I have always stated my desire to help Ulster secure lasting success and a legacy that mirrors that of our neighbouring provinces.

"I am extremely thankful to my family, friends and everyone for their support, and the commitment by the IRFU with a three-year contract which will allow me to achieve my goals."

Ulster Operations Director Bryn Cunningham is understandably thrilled to finally have Henderson tied down.

"Iain is a talismanic figure," he said. "His rugby ability and physical presence are without question, but it will be his leadership that will help Ulster create a hugely competitive squad over the coming seasons."

With Henderson and Best having sorted their own futures, Ulster do still have some outstanding business to take care of.

Jared Payne, who hasn't played since returning from the Lions tour thanks to recurring headaches and has recently been helping with coaching, will see his IRFU contract expire this summer, while there is still yet to be an announcement on where Darren Cave will be playing his rugby next year.

As well as the departing Gibbes, marquee man Charles Piutau and starting loosehead Callum Black are also leaving this summer, for Bristol and Worcester respectively, while two-time Lion Tommy Bowe will retire once the season ends.

Belfast Telegraph

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