Belfast Telegraph

Home Sport Rugby Ulster

Will to learn and change has driven Ulster on: Henderson

 

Listening brief: Iain Henderson with Ulster boss Dan McFarland
Listening brief: Iain Henderson with Ulster boss Dan McFarland
Iain Henderson hitting heights on the pitch
Jonathan Bradley

As a man with a head for figures, Iain Henderson was always likely to put more stock in numbers than optics.

On the surface, the fact that Ulster host Connacht in today's PRO14 quarter-final (5.35pm kick-off) is testament to the huge progress made over the course of the last 12 months.

To go from requiring a qualifier game win over Ospreys just to take their place in the Champions Cup in May 2018, a return to the knockout stages of the PRO14, and bringing such a tie back to Belfast, represents all pre-season expectations being exceeded.

Throw in a Champions Cup quarter-final - their first since 2014 - and Ulster's two most recent campaigns feel like a stark contrast.

Henderson, though, knows margins are fine and perception can be a funny thing.

The side have banked just one more point in the PRO14 this year than under the joint stewardship of Les Kiss and Jono Gibbes, winning one more game but collecting three fewer bonus points.

When it comes to Europe, the difference this season to last essentially boils down to getting a result away to Leicester that they didn't manage when facing Wasps in Coventry a year prior.

"Last season, people I'm sure would argue is the worst season Ulster have had in however many years," Henderson reflected.

"But had we not lost to Wasps and to Edinburgh at home (in the league), then we'd have been in the same scenario as we are this season.

"You think of the seasons as chalk and cheese but the margins between them are fine."

There are mitigating factors, of course. Given the overhaul of experienced playing staff and a brand new coaching ticket, an argument can be made that the similar results can be seen as over-achieving this year and under-achieving in past campaigns. The influx of youth gives the impression of a team on an upward trajectory for the first time in as many as six years.

The Irish international lock, who has been superb whenever called upon this season, doesn't point out the statistical similarity to downplay the success of this season either, more to highlight that the difference between success and apparent failure at this level is often thin.

"We weren't as far away as people thought we were," he added. "But we've come on leaps and bounds since then. That's something that's been down to a number of factors, players, coaches, restructuring of training.

"It's very interesting to see the difference in games and the difference that we've had in training. Yes, I'm sure there's a correlation, but it's hard to say if it's a direct one.

"Training has changed, the profile of the squad has changed and that's increased the standard, increased the demands for standards to be set.

"Players are much younger, a lot more accepting of change, accepting of the way training is done, accepting of the way Ulster played, willing to perform and change at different levels.

"We've changed how we play. We're trying to play faster, play more, play a quicker brand of rugby. That doesn't just happen on the pitch, that's through pre-season and through training during the week.

"At the start of the year, I don't think we had it nailed on but it's been a continuous work-on for us and we've done that. It's the willingness to change, a willingness to learn from the squad."

Ulster's players will be looking to show evidence of that progression this evening having twice been beaten by Connacht earlier in the season.

Both those games came in 2018, the first of them representing a first win in Belfast for the western province in 58 years.

"I sat here during that week and said history's there and it's not set in stone - things get broken and re-arranged all the time," remembered Henderson of Connacht's long-standing hoodoo.

"Hopefully they won't be winning consecutive games up here.

"Connacht came last time with a real attitude and mentality to try and overturn us physically, and to be fair for most of the game I think they did.

"We had a few frustrating decisions in that game that were out of our hands, but as a whole we really didn't play that well during that game and since then we've progressed our game and we're playing better rugby.

"That's something we ourselves know and have worked on and hopefully we'll be able to show that at the weekend."

With a place in the semi-finals at stake, Ulster will give paramount importance to booking their place in Glasgow two weeks from now but the emotional factor of farewells to Rory Best and Darren Cave should not be overlooked.

Best has often been cited as a big influence on his fellow Irish international's career but, unlike many, Henderson doesn't think he is the leading candidate to take on the mantle of skipper at Kingspan Stadium next season.

"Right from the very start when I joined, Rory was an incredibly influential player," Henderson said. "I am certain a lot of the players looked at me when I came in as a lanky kid who didn't have a clue what I was doing. I knew I wasn't an incredibly natural rugby player. I had to learn, I had to take a lot of learnings from players I played with and Rory was definitely one of those players.

"He's one of those players you have to look at and almost analyse what he does to get him to where he is.

"In terms of Ulster Rugby, he kind of has been Ulster Rugby for the last 10 years or more. Since I have come in, it has been Rory Best as the key player.

"I probably am not expecting to be captain. Rob Herring has done it before. Alan O'Connor has captained many, many times. There are a lot of great leaders in the squad. When I have been captain, that's something I think makes it a lot easier than you might anticipate it being.

"There are so many leaders, so many strong characters in the squad. When I have captained, it is beneficial to our squad that we have leaders and it goes to show that there are a fair number of candidates that could be captain."

Match Verdict: Ulster

The name of one Rory Best on the teamsheet will be a huge boost to Ulster, who are missing only Marty Moore from the pack that started against Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter-finals.

The scrum will be hugely important after past struggles against Connacht this season but having earned home advantage for this game, Ulster would be hugely disappointed not to ensure their campaign goes on at least one game longer.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph