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Ulster v Munster: Proposal was never a tough call for Iain Henderson

By Michael Sadlier

Iain Henderson goes head-to-head with Peter O'Mahony today at the Kingspan Stadium in a clash of seismic proportions, but it is worth noting that Ulster's 23-year-old rising star is only out there doing his stuff because of a speculative phone call.

It came back in 2010 when Henderson was on his way to Edinburgh to begin studying for a mathematics degree.

Rugby was never a career option for the former Belfast Royal Academy pupil and, indeed, he had not featured at all when it came to playing at schools level for either Ulster or Ireland.

But someone had seen him play and was prepared to take a fairly sizeable punt that he might have that special something.

And so the phone rang as Henderson was actually making his way to Edinburgh. On the other end was Jonny Bell, the now Ulster defence coach who is about to depart for Gloucester, with an offer to stay and play.

"I was en route to Edinburgh when Jonny rang," Henderson revealed earlier this week.

"He said there could be a chance to play for the Ulster Under-20s and a potential spot at the Academy for me if I decided to stay put."

So, a decision had to be made - and quickly.

Just keep travelling onwards to Scotland, or head back and give rugby a go while combining it with studying at home?

Deciding which direction to go in actually proved to be fairly straightforward and he turned his back on Edinburgh.

"My dad said, 'These opportunities don't come round very often'. I was offered a spot in Queen's University and gave it a go," recalled Henderson.

"Even so, I never really saw professional rugby as an option until I won my first Ulster cap (in 2012)."

From playing in the Aviva Stadium's first game for the combined provinces back in 2010 to where Henderson finds himself now as a key Ulster player who is the real deal - with 17 Ireland caps and two Six Nations titles behind him - has been a fairly mesmerising journey.

And he tells it in fairly inimitable style: "I remember after my first Ireland cap, against South Africa in 2012, looking back and thinking, 'A year ago, I was living in a house in Stranmillis with three or four guys from school, still messing about, setting things on fire, putting weird stuff in the microwave, all sorts of stupid stuff like that going on. Then this happens'."

From blowing up microwaves to wreaking havoc around rugby pitches - and all thanks to a phone call.

Henderson has talent by the bucketload but the laid-back player has grafted hard to develop his power and athleticism which now sees him widely tipped to take over from the legendary Paul O'Connell as Ireland's foremost powerhouse forward.

He is also versatile and can play back row or at lock with the latter seeming to be where Irish head coach Joe Schmidt prefers him.

A starting place in the Ireland side is the next goal and he should achieve that aim with some interest.

Since returning in January from undergoing hip surgery at the start of the season, Henderson has been collecting rave reviews for his work-rate - though the beard and long hair he sported back then in another sign of his quirky personality have been abandoned - with the sacking of Mike Ross a fortnight ago being a particular highlight.

More of the same is expected today.

Munster beware - 'Hendy' is on the prowl.

Belfast Telegraph


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