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We have a bit of unfinished business with South Africa: Henderson

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Five years ago tomorrow, Iain Henderson was stood on the touchline readying himself to replace Mike McCarthy and make his Ireland debut.

This weekend, against the same South African opposition, he'll be winning cap No.33 and admits that Dublin evening half a decade ago now feels almost a world away.

When handed that initial Test exposure by Declan Kidney, he had played only six times for Ulster, getting his first taste of senior action just six months prior to taking on the Springboks.

Now, with Paul O'Connell retired and Donnacha Ryan in France, the 25-year-old has established himself as a seemingly sure starter for Joe Schmidt, and, after this summer's exploits in New Zealand, a British and Irish Lion to boot.

"I just remember that I had only really started playing for Ulster at the time and I thought it was very bizarre," he recalled.

"Coming off the bench with Donncha O'Callaghan, there was a fair few new caps that day too. Michael Bent, Richardt Strauss got his first cap, so it was a brilliant experience five years ago. Obviously looking back now I understand why no one ever selected me until I made my international debut.

"I was young and raw and inexperienced, and probably didn't have much of a clue what I was doing. That's what I think now, looking back. But obviously a coach put faith in me and sort of saw what they could potentially mould out of this 20-year-old kid who didn't really know what he was doing. Looking back, at the time it was fantastic."

Just as Henderson entered the fray that day, Eben Etzebeth was leaving the field, the fellow lock, who is now captain of his country, having won his ninth cap. It was neither the first nor the last time their paths would cross. From butting heads at Under-20s level, the pair who will go toe-to-toe in the engine room again on Saturday both featured in all three Tests between Schmidt's men and the Springboks during the summer of 2016.

"I've played against him a good few times before," confirmed Henderson. "He's obviously a massive presence on the pitch and a huge leader in their team, captaining them.

"He's been very good for them, not only in the games just passed but in the last number of years. He's been a huge presence and does really well for them. Having played against him three times last summer, we know that's something we've learned lessons from. Probably good lessons and bad lessons."

Saturday represents the first time these sides have met since those games in 2016, with the frustration from that summer still felt by Henderson.

As someone who has previously spoken about still being irked by his Belfast Royal Academy side's Schools' Cup final defeat, it should come as no surprise that Henderson continues to be rankled by the failure to secure a series win after proving victorious in the first Test despite a red card.

"Frustratingly, the first game was fantastic," he sighed. "Fourteen men for a lot of the game, 13 for some of it and still we came out with a win.

"Then being so far ahead in another Test and slipping off, it was something that was massively frustrating.

"We could have made history going down there to be the first team to turn over South Africa on an incoming series. That's something a wee bit annoying for us and something we realise, it was in our hands to take it."

That a win in South Africa, a previously unprecedented result, was seen as a disappointing return from that tour shows how strange a time this has been for the two-time World Cup winners.

While they finished third at the 2015 World Cup, the ultimate shock of a pool stage loss to Japan showed cracks that would become chasms when a number of their squad hung up their boots or joined the exodus to Europe.

As well as the historic home loss to Ireland, the following year also brought a first defeat to Italy as well as a first reverse in Argentina. While results have improved in 2017, the harrowing experience of a 57-0 thumping at the hands of New Zealand, still the yardstick against which fans judge their team, will linger long in the memory. Henderson, though, expects a fierce challenge to open the autumn series.

"They're still a team full of threats. They still have world-class players throughout their whole team and that's probably one of the worrying things about them," he said.

"To see the potential they have and what they could produce, it's one of those things you've got to make sure you're aware of because all it needs is for one of those combinations to click in the right way and they'll be very dangerous."

Ireland vs South Africa

Guinness Series

Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 5.30pm

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