Lions' craic spirit can roar Ulster to glory: Henderson
After an unforgettable summer, Ulster's Iain Henderson is hoping to recreate some of the famed British and Irish Lions spirit at Kingspan Stadium this season.
The 25-year-old is now back in Belfast after seven weeks spent touring New Zealand in the revered red jersey, followed just three days later by his wedding to long-term girlfriend Suzanne, then a well deserved honeymoon in Singapore, and believes he has returned having been reminded of a valuable lesson...rugby is there to be enjoyed.
While Warren Gatland's men defied pre-tour predictions by drawing their series with the back-to-back World champions, their endeavours were hardly the product of a Spartan existence in the Land of the Long White Cloud, as English prop Joe Marler alluded to when he blamed Ulster's Ireland captain Rory Best (inset) for leading him astray before a few drunken calls home.
"Rory was a good driving force behind those," laughed Henderson at the launch of the Guinness PRO14 in the Aviva Stadium yesterday.
"Imagine taking away 40 guys and telling them you can't drink for eight weeks, it just wouldn't work.
"After a game everyone was allowed a beer, to have a night out. If you didn't, it wouldn't work, you'd be a caged animal by the last Test.
"With the club teams, you had a beer with your opposite man and I swapped jerseys with everyone I played against. Those are memories I'll have forever."
Successfully striking that difficult balance, as well as the thrill of proving himself on the biggest of stages, had Henderson enjoying every minute of his rugby, something he believes was key to the performances that saw him return as arguably the most impressive player not to crack a Test side.
"I think the last three games I played out there, I really enjoyed them and I think I play better when I enjoy it," he added.
"That's something that maybe, when you're worrying about the details of rugby too much, you forget to enjoy yourself."
The inference to Ulster last season is clear, with the side's struggles both in the early winter, and again in late spring, often giving the impression that Kingspan Stadium wasn't a particularly fun place to be at times.
"That maybe happened Ulster a bit last year," he continued. "We had a decent start but then into the Champions Cup, you've lost a couple of games and you're trying to get momentum back, forcing things a bit.
"Especially when you put together a pro squad of such competitive people, no one enjoys losing.
"Don't get me wrong, we are going to lose during a season, but it's how we react to that and build for our next game.
"From the Lions tour, I found that when you're enjoying it, as well as having a bit of craic along the way, you play better.
"That's something we (Ulster) needed to look at, something we have addressed and now there's a real positive buzz around the squad.
"If you aren't enjoying each other's company, if you aren't having a bit of craic with each other, with or without beers, something goes a bit stagnant in a squad. You have to keep that liveliness, everyone enjoying themselves, enjoying the environment, and from that you do start enjoying your rugby more.
"Around the squad it has been a fairly lightened mood and I think we have to work throughout this season so that mood doesn't drop.
"If we do lose and it drops then it's working out how we can pick it up quickly."
And while the idea of re-creating a Lions atmosphere over the course of a long and sometimes arduous season may seem impossible in the days of professionalism, Henderson is already looking forward to something of a 'mini-tour' when Ulster make an historic first competitive visit to South Africa.
The inclusion of both the Southern Kings, who Ulster play in Port Elizabeth on November 4, and the Cheetahs into an expanded league has caused much debate throughout the rugby world but, if Henderson is anything to go by, players are enthused by the prospect of meeting new opponents in far off stadiums.
"This season we go off to South Africa to play and we'll be there five days beforehand and at least one day after," said the lock with clear enthusiasm.
"That will definitely be almost like a mini-tour in the middle of the season.
"It'll be something that all the guys will look forward to doing."
Ulster will get a close up look at the other South African side, the Cheetahs, to open the campaign at Kingspan Stadium on September 1.
But after his whirlwind summer, Henderson will not be there as he awaits clearance to return to action, most likely he thinks in round three or four.
Even in his absence, he stresses the importance of the team making a fast start.
"We have to do as well as we can at the front end of the season and make the back end of the season easier," he said.
"It's probably what we failed on in the past, losing a couple of games before the Christmas run, even before the autumn internationals last year.
"Between now and the autumn internationals we have six (league) games and we are trying to maximise what we can do.
"We have to concentrate now and keep on building."
Just as long as he remembers to enjoy himself along the way.