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'We didn't look a quarter-final team': Iain Henderson vows Ulster won't stop until they bridge gap to the top

 

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Travel guide: Iain Henderson bids to drive Ulster forward

Travel guide: Iain Henderson bids to drive Ulster forward

SPORTSFILE

No stopping them: Ulster’s Sean Reidy battles to halt Toulouse’s Antoine Dupont at Stade Ernest-Wallon yesterday

No stopping them: Ulster’s Sean Reidy battles to halt Toulouse’s Antoine Dupont at Stade Ernest-Wallon yesterday

Iain Henderson

Iain Henderson

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Travel guide: Iain Henderson bids to drive Ulster forward

Only hard work will bridge the gap between Ulster and the very best sides, admitted the province's skipper Iain Henderson.

Beaten 36-8 in the Champions Cup last eight by Toulouse in France yesterday, head coach Dan McFarland admitted afterwards his side were outlassed.

"We didn't look like a quarter-final team," he lamented, while ruing how the French giants were capable of ruthlessly punishing mistakes.

Having been dealt a second heart-breaking loss in as many weeks, Henderson stressed the side must stick together and continue to work.

"I don't know how many times I've sat here after a knock-out rugby game and said next year we are going to learn from this," he said.

"So my main takeaway from this season is that this team works hard for each other and we are going to continue to work hard for each other until we find a way. We don't know how we are going to do it but we are not going to stop until we get better.

"We are getting better as a team, there is no doubt about that, but every other team is getting better too. The likes of Toulouse and Leinster just didn't peak a few years ago and then level out. They are constantly getting better, too.

"It isn't just about getting better, it's the rate at which we can get better and I think over the last two seasons we have accelerated loads but we have to make sure we continue to make up that ground and that distance between us and these opposition teams.

"I hope it is just the last step we have to take, that we click and all those pieces will fall in together really nicely but even if it isn't, as a squad we are committed to making sure that we don't stop trying until they do."

Ulster trailed only 8-3 late in the first-half despite shipping a try in the opening minutes but a second-half barrage from the hosts ensured that they had booked their place in the semi-finals long before the game, and Ulster's season, belatedly ended.

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For the defeated northern province, this season will be viewed as if split into two parts.

Prior to lockdown, they were riding high in the PRO14, although admittedly still decidedly second best to Leinster in their conference, and looking resolute in Europe having won five of six pool games to book their spot in yesterday’s game.

Having lost only five times all season prior to the beginning of the pandemic, they would lose four times in five weeks after the games resumed.

Even their sole win — the PRO14 semi-final against Edinburgh earlier this month — saw them trail for almost the entirety of the game before Ian Madigan nailed a pair of late kicks to steal the come-from-behind victory.

While all pro rugby teams had to deal with same stoppage — although not all from a position of placing players on furlough — there is little doubt that Ulster appear to have had a considerably more dramatic reversal of fortunes than their rivals.

“I think in every facet of life, it has messed something up for somebody along the way,” noted Henderson. “It’s frustrating. We did so much together over video channels, we met up in a lot of different ways and did a lot of homework in the time we were apart from each other.

“However that is not playing rugby and you need to play rugby together to continue that momentum we had. We most certainly have not done ourselves justice since.

“If you had said to me after our last pool game that you’d lose the quarter-final by the score we did, I’d have certainly been more disappointed then than I am now.”

Henderson will likely play little part for Ulster in the early months of next season, his added Ireland commitments sure to see his outings in white severely limited now until the other side of next year’s Six Nations.

In his absence, youngsters will be called upon but Henderson isn’t worried leaving things in their hands.

“These young lads are some of the most professional in our squad and I have no qualms in saying it.

“They are far more professional than I was at their age.”


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