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Kingspan fans deserve a taste of glory, insists Chris Henry

By Jonathan Bradley

Jarred by the sight of despondent fans already trudging home while Saracens put the finishing touches on their dismantling of Ulster back in November, flanker Chris Henry hopes the resurrection of the province's Champions Cup campaign has restored faith among supporters.

In what seemed a wholly unlikely prospect that wet and windy night a little under two months ago, Les Kiss' men are now in the mix for quarter-final qualification having twice seen off Toulouse, and a win against Oyonnax at the Stade Charles Mathon this Sunday would significantly further the cause.

With the reverse fixture against the Top 14 strugglers to come in two weeks' time, after a trip to once again face the might of Saracens, the next three games will decide the province's fate and Henry says the squad are full of confidence ahead of the defining run.

"I know the result in the Champions Cup against Saracens was poor, and we all felt we'd let people down," Henry revealed.

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"I have one abiding memory of that game - being replaced late in the game and as I came off I saw fans leaving the stadium. That just doesn't happen (here).

"But I think that we've shown in recent games that the confidence is flowing.

"Perhaps we might have scored more tries against Edinburgh in dreadful conditions but we played well and then in the games against Toulouse we've shown how we want to play our rugby and the supporters have responded.

"It's just great to be a part of it all at the moment."

For Henry, part of numerous squads that have come so close to securing a first trophy since the 2006 Celtic League, a belief that he and his team-mates can deliver success this season has never wavered.

"Ulster can win things with this squad and we believe we will," he continued.

"The supporters deserve it, we want to do it for them as much as ourselves, and the whole structure is tailored for success.

"I love playing for this side, I really do."

While the 31-year-old is looking towards the challenges ahead, the first week of January offers a chance for reflection on what has been a tumultuous 12 months.

Having initially feared his career was under threat after he suffered a mini-stroke in November 2014, last year saw the Malone man surpass all expectations when he returned to Ulster colours in April and made it to his first World Cup with Ireland in the autumn.

"It was scary, I can't deny that," he reflected.

"For some time we didn't know what the problem was. Maybe a migraine, perhaps a virus?

"I wondered how it could have happened to me, a professional athlete, someone who prides themselves on being fit and who is constantly monitored by the super medical teams in the game.

"As I was having some procedures, and getting the best possible treatment, of course I wondered.

"Especially in the days waiting for the medics to offer a prognosis, was I facing a worst case scenario?

"Was my career over? Was I going to be able to live a normal existence?

"You're left with your thoughts, and for me all sorts of things tumbled through my mind.

"Even when, after a long week waiting for a scan, I was told I could look towards playing again, I thought my World Cup chance was surely gone.

"I'd reconciled myself, almost, to getting fit to be ready for Ulster at the start of this current season."

Having surprised even himself by forcing his way back into Joe Schmidt's World Cup plans, the tournament, regardless of its unfulfilling conclusion, provided a career highlight for a player who let nobody down on the big stage.

"You can imagine how great it was to be involved," he beamed. "I'd been in the extended squad four years earlier but just didn't make the final cut so it was fairytale stuff.

"I'm a very lucky guy. I'm surrounded by good people on and off the pitch, I play the game I love for a living. What's not to like?"

Perhaps the only thing is, again, that lack of silverware in the Kingspan cabinet.

Having lost to Glasgow in the PRO12 semi-final, 2015 became the fifth year in a row in which the side tasted knock-out defeat in the season's final month with Henry left to bemoan another missed opportunity.

"It was a great feeling to be back playing for my club and we were on a good run," he added. "Confidence was really high and the PRO12 looked a real prospect for silverware, especially with a final at the Kingspan Stadium. We'd got into a great position.

"We'd played well often and even when we didn't we were winning games. So to end the season so suddenly in Scotland was a great frustration for us, for the supporters, and disappointing for us as a squad and coaching team."

With the confidence brought about by Kiss' return as Director of Rugby not unduly dented by last weekend's defeat to Munster, rectifying the drought is sure to be a New Year's resolution that Henry is intent on keeping.

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