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The real buzz around Ulster has been so refreshing: Henderson

Bath 16-17 Ulster

Gripping stuff: Ulster ace Jordi Murphy comes under attention from Bath's Charlie Ewels
Gripping stuff: Ulster ace Jordi Murphy comes under attention from Bath's Charlie Ewels
Jacob Stockdale celebrates after preventing a try at the death
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

If Iain Henderson has been suffering from any World Cup hangover, there was no sign of it after he led Ulster to a 17-16 win over Bath in the opening game of his side's Champions Cup campaign.

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Tense and rarely free-flowing but with plenty of the requisite grit, the province's victory by the narrowest of margins came via a 71st-minute John Cooney penalty and late defensive stand that saw Jacob Stockdale intercept what would have been a match-winning scoring pass for the hosts with the clock deep into the red.

Sat in the back of The Rec after starting his tenure as Ulster skipper with a win, Henderson said the energy and enthusiasm shown by his team-mates in training this week has been refreshing in the wake of Ireland's World Cup exit to New Zealand a little under a month ago.

"The week actually felt a lot different to what I've been involved in before (with Ulster)," said Rory Best's successor of his first action since that dispiriting quarter-final thumping in Tokyo.

"Coming back in, the energy has been unbelievable about the place. There's been a different, not style, to training but just a different set-up to the days, and the lads are buzzing.

"There's competition in training and excitement that's next level. To come back into that is utterly refreshing.

"It's a very good place to be in and a positive place to be in. It's been a class week and all I can say is that I'm looking forward to the next one."

Henderson was confirmed as captain only one day before joining Joe Schmidt's World Cup camp and added that the wait to lead his side out in a permanent capacity for the first time has felt a long one.

"During the summer when Dan (McFarland) called me in and we had the chat about the captaincy, it was quite difficult because I really wanted to get stuck back in with the lads immediately," he said.

"To have to disappear for three and a half months was tough. I've been itching to get back in. To get into training last week and see how intense it was, and then be involved this week, it's been class.

"It's something I've been looking forward to for the last eight, nine, 10 weeks. I'm delighted to be back in and hopefully next week we take it to another level."

To beat Top 14 giants Clermont back in Belfast for round two on Friday night, such an improvement will no doubt be necessary but, in this instance, it was a commendable show of resilience.

Earning four match points off just 42% possession, it was another day when, thanks to Jared Payne's defence, Ulster looked more impressive when the opposition had their hands on the ball.

In that regard, what was a glaring weakness a few seasons ago appears to have been transformed into something of a strength.

The same can be said for the province's form away from Kingspan Stadium.

From the beginning of 2016 through the first of Dan McFarland's away trips in Europe, Ulster had won just two of their previous nine away fixtures in this competition.

Now, they've won their last three pool fixtures outside of Belfast, the improvement an obvious requirement for any side with designs on making the knockout stages.

"We talk a lot about getting excited about Europe, getting the opportunity to play a lot of teams that you wouldn't get to play usually and not letting those opportunities pass you by," said Henderson.

"Over the last number of years the average age of the squad has been dropping and along with that comes a lot of excitement, a lot of energy.

"The guys who don't get the opportunities are adding that energy and they want to be involved throughout the whole week - that energy adds to the whole excitement and it brims over into match day.

"It wasn't pretty at the best of times, but that energy just adds to those away wins, those dogged wins we talk about in a place like this, a changing room like that.

"People complain about that changing room, and changing rooms like Welford Road and The Stoop, but they're the best changing rooms to be in after a win."

To see this one finally over the line required an 83-minute effort and a late penalty from the boot of Cooney. The sponsor's man of the match, who had an uncharacteristic shank to end the first half, had converted his own score and another from Rob Lyttle when an Ulster maul eked out an opportunity from the tee in the 71st minute to move his side into the 17-16 lead.

There was still a host of drama to come though. Ulster looked to have won the game with a late scrum penalty and an even later breakdown jackal from the superb Marcell Coetzee but turnovers, of which there were 16 littered throughout the game, would again make matters more difficult than strictly necessary.

At one stage it looked like the last of the afternoon would prove costly indeed. Ulster's players were celebrating what they thought was a win after Cooney booted the ball into touch off a line-out but the touch judge intervened to penalise Rob Herring for a crooked throw.

Forced to repel one final charge, Bath looked set to score in the corner before Stockdale, who had been forced to shoot up to pressure the original pass, scrambled back to snag the ball out of the hands of the waiting Semsea Rokoduguni.

Dan McFarland admitted: "It was pretty tense. The old heart is going. We nearly tried to beat ourselves at the end, but we dogged it out."

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