Reaction: 'Immense' Henderson leads Ulster to make a case for the defence
Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss hailed his side's character after they overcame Harlequins, and the elements, at Twickenham Stoop yesterday to breathe new life into their European Champions Cup campaign.
The 17-5 win in snowy London came thanks to Jacob Stockdale scoring his side's only try in the first half. "I'm pleased, obviously," said Kiss. "The conditions certainly shoved the game in a certain direction and you have to adapt some of the plans that you've put together.
"It wasn't perfect but it wasn't a day for perfection. It was a day for getting down and dirty and fighting the tough moments out. The boys challenged each other to stand up, to dig deep and I thought we did that."
Scrum-half John Cooney, who kicked 12 points on the day, picked up man of the match honours and echoed Kiss, adding that the win will mean little if Ulster can't repeat the dose against the same opposition back at Kingspan Stadium on Friday night.
"We knew we had to play well," he said. "We wanted to show heart, we wanted to show fight and we had to in those conditions. But we know we have to back it up as it's a quick turnaround."
Injured skipper Rory Best is unlikely to return for Friday's game while Tommy Bowe's hamstring injury will be monitored in midweek.
With Harlequins boasting two British and Irish Lions props, as well as a former England captain in the shape of Chris Robshaw, even if he lasted only 15 minutes, there had certainly been an impression that a forwards battle would better suit the hosts.
But Ulster’s pack, an area that Kiss and Jono Gibbes are attempting to rebuild, was the better of the two sides, with Iain Henderson excelling on his return to Ulster colours after the Autumn internationals.
“I think Iain Henderson was immense in his leadership,” said the Australian. “Rob Herring was immense underneath Hendy, I thought they were brilliant overall.
“Ross Kane came on and did a great job, Andy Warwick too, and I thought Chris Henry just showed the warrior that he is. That gave us a lift and I was really impressed with what the pack did.
“I thought they were immense, their defence of the maul, their defence in general was brilliant and they certainly laid a platform for us to do some smarter things around the edges and get the job done.
“You like to see rugby with a bit of style but we’re trying to build a bit of substance to our game in how we tough things out. The front row battle was compelling in its own way and I thought our scrum did exceptionally well. The maul defence was brilliant.”
While conditions ensured points were to be at premium throughout, the game provided a much needed defensive statement after Ulster shipped 90 points in their past three games.
“Sometimes you’re not nailing everything as you’d like to,” Kiss noted. “It’s such a simple thing from the outside to look at one or two things but we are doing the things internally to build something. Not everything is perfect but this team, they’re focused, there was an opportunity for growth here and they took it. They know what we’re doing, they know what matters and they believe in what we’re doing.
“We’ve got to go and do it again next week. We’re not kidding ourselves. If we want to be something in May, it’s what we do now.”
With one win secured in this key run, Kiss though was far from getting ahead of himself.
With Friday’s rematch first and foremost in the mind, following that Ulster play the other three provinces in quick succession before renewing acquaintances with La Rochelle and Wasps.
For better or worse, we will have a much clearer idea of how this season is going to pan out come the Six Nations break.
“The focus is game by game,” said Kiss. “We’ve only lost three games this season.
“The boys know how to win, we’ve just got to make sure that we go home, package this the right way, and deliver again.
“It’s a short-turnaround for both teams, but it’s in our lap now to be able to do something. Quins will lose a couple but they’ve put out young teams a lot this year and still delivered so we have to be on the money.”
Kiss is pessimistic, however, that Rory Best will return in time for Friday’s game, while Tommy Bowe, who had been struggling with a hamstring injury last week, is another who will be monitored as the week progresses.
“He’s a bit doubtful,” added Kiss of his captain who has missed considerable time thanks to Lions and Irish commitments, as well as injury, this season.
“Rory has amazing healing powers but it’s a pretty bad infection and we have to control that and make sure it doesn’t get into the bloodstream.
“We’ll see how we go, we’ll make a decision later.
“Rob (Herring) went the full 80 but we’ve no doubt John Andrew can step into the breach.
“Tommy we brought off with a slight hamstring injury that we’ve had to manage this week but nothing else injury-wise of note.”