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Iain Henderson: Ireland are ready to beat the All Blacks and make World Cup history

 

Up for it: Iain Henderson and CJ Stander at Ireland training
Up for it: Iain Henderson and CJ Stander at Ireland training
The Ulsterman on the charge against Scots
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

For a man who has now exceeded 50 Test caps by the relatively tender age of 27, today's World Cup quarter-final represents a first ever start against the All Blacks for Ulster's Iain Henderson.

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Having missed out on the heartbreak of Ryan Crotty's last-gasp try in 2013 through a toe injury, it was a minor shoulder knock sustained against Exeter two weeks prior that saw him absent for the history-making win in Soldier Field some three years on.

Henderson, Sean O'Brien and Peter O'Mahony were all returned only for the backlash back in Dublin 14 days on, the Ulsterman coming on as a second-half substitute.

Last time around - the 16-9 victory in Dublin last November - the lock was a replacement again, a hugely effective one at that, having been displaced in the starting team by Devin Toner following a so-so showing against Argentina.

"I think a lot of (what sets them apart) is their mindset," he says of what he has learned from those cameos as well as watching from afar.

"The physicality they come out with, the speed they play with. A lot of what they do doesn't come off, but they react very well and they think very fast, and when they're on their feet they react to other teams' mistakes very well.

"You can't offer them anything but that's something we have done well against them in the past, we haven't offered them anything and we've been on top of them."

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To repeat the feat today is a monumental challenge and, while the aura of the All Blacks has been dented somewhat now that Joe Schmidt's men have the experience of beating them, there remains a weight of history on the shoulders of those in green today. Ireland have never won a knockout game, New Zealand haven't lost one since 2007.

A mathematical mind, Henderson doesn't put much stock in such barren spells.

"I haven't really thought about it that much, that's being honest," said the next Ulster captain. "It hasn't been talked about massively.

"I'm a massive believer in statistics. Last year we were talking in Kingspan and we were talking about how Connacht hadn't won up there in 50-odd years.

"I was asked about it and said 'they're probably due a win at some stage, then'.

"They came up and gave us a good hiding.

"It's only a matter of time, whether it's now or in the next 12 years, Ireland will make a semi-final.

"I think we've prepared well and it's somewhere we want to go."

Ireland were a very different side when last falling at this stage four years ago against Argentina; Henderson is very different too.

Then he was a new kid on the block - relatively speaking - at a first World Cup and behind several vastly experienced figures. This week, he has been spoken of as a leader in the group by his forwards coach Simon Easterby.

"Last time I was the second-row substitute," he remembered. "Paulie (Paul O'Connell) was there, Dev (Devin Toner) was there, Donnacha Ryan was there, I think those types of players were obviously people who I always watched growing up, and they were always the players that, from a young age of playing rugby professionally, I learned from. I learned an awful lot from.

"So to not have any of the likes of those players there, the other second-rows in this squad are a similar age or younger than me coming through, and it's unbelievable to see the work-rate that they want to put in, the amount that they want to learn, a lot more, slightly regrettably, than I might have at that stage.

"So I think that's massively exciting and that gives me massive confidence, and that's not only in the second-row department, that's across the pitch."

And having already missed out on one piece of Irish rugby history against this opposition, Henderson is understandably keen not to let another slip by.

"Obviously Chicago was such an incredible game in Irish rugby history, obviously for the circumstances around being in America and for a load of different other reasons, I would have loved to have been involved. I remember watching it from home and thinking it was unbelievable," he said.

"That actually riled us up more, the fact that we didn't get a chance to play there.

"That has put a taste in people's mouths for what we have the potential to do, but the performances that we've shown thus far in the World Cup probably wouldn't warrant that.

"I think we need to step up to the next level and I think everyone is prepared to," Henderson added.

"I think we've been building nicely and training feels like we're building nicely.

"We just have to make sure that come (kick-off), we deliver."

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