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Ulster's rising stars have set the standard and must not settle for any drop, says Henderson

Bright future: Iain Henderson is proud of Ulster’s efforts
Bright future: Iain Henderson is proud of Ulster’s efforts
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

In seasons good and bad throughout his Ulster career, the talents of Iain Henderson have marked him out as a standard-driver for the province, and the Lions lock believes that recent performances have lifted the baseline at Kingspan Stadium.

Having almost failed to qualify for European rugby's top competition this season, Dan McFarland's men were on the cusp of a first semi-final since 2012 as they ran Leinster all the way in Saturday's 21-18 defeat.

With seven of the 20 players used in the Aviva Stadium under the age of 25, the room for continued growth is apparent, but Henderson has called on the side to ensure their performance levels remain at that high watermark.

"Rory (Best) touched on it in the dressing room," said Henderson. "We have a very young squad, the average age is way down in the low 20s.

"A lot of the lads haven't been in changing rooms like this, but for them to get to play-off rugby in a lot of their first seasons of professional rugby - not even just their first season with Ulster - I think that is massive.

"It's a massive boost of confidence for them. That's the baseline now and what they want to step forward to and build towards.

"That is something I'm sure they'll use, internally, to drive them on. Not only for the next six to eight weeks, but going on for the rest of their careers."

With 15,000 supporters following them to Dublin, even in defeat the weekend felt like something of a new starting block for Ulster after a dreary campaign last time around saw a further drop in attendances.

While Henderson cautioned against calling this a "starting point", he admitted that young players such as Eric O'Sullivan, Mike Lowry and Rob Baloucoune have added something of a spark to the side having all debuted from the Academy this season.

"Darren Cave or Rory Best, it's no starting point for them," said Henderson, who captained the side on Saturday once Best was lost to injury. "They're revitalised by a lot of the young lads coming through. It's been a very fresh lift seeing the young lads coming in and seeing the competition they're putting on a lot of the older players, a lot of the guys who have been around for a few years. It's class to see.

"It's brilliant. The enthusiasm they bring to training every week is massive on weeks where you might be feeling down or you might be feeling it's not going your way, the young lads are definitely adding energy.

"Not only on the pitch, not only on the training pitch but almost in every aspect."

Still, having come up agonisingly short against a side who have had their number in big games for the past decade, Henderson admitted there is still a bit to go if his side are to match the Leinsters of this world.

"That next level just got away from us a wee bit," he concluded. "(I'm) pretty proud of the guys who have worked the whole season to get to that point to be able to take those steps towards that.

"We know ourselves that ultimately we didn't take it. I'm pleased with a lot of stuff we did but we know there's a lot of work-ons out there."

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