Rugby World Cup: Iain Henderson can be one of world's best, says David Humphreys
Ulster legend David Humphreys believes Iain Henderson can go on to become one the world's best rugby players.
Despite only forcing his way into Joe Schmidt's starting line-up just prior to the World Cup, the 23-year-old has been one of the tournament's star attractions and earned man-of-the-match honours in the 16-9 win over Italy that booked Ireland's place in the quarter-finals.
He is again expected to be a key figure when the side takes on France at the Millennium Stadium on Sunday to decide who tops Pool D and Humphreys is looking forward to seeing the Ulster forward continue to make a big impact.
The province's former director of rugby does admit, however, that he would not have predicted such success for the academy graduate after observing his first forays into the senior set-up.
"Iain Henderson has the potential to be one of the best players in the world," said the 1999 European Cup winner (pictured).
"I still remember the first day he turned up at Ulster training, the first day I met him. You certainly wouldn't have identified him then at that point as someone who had that ability.
"We knew the physical attributes he had, but there's so much more to becoming a professional rugby player.
"He's one of those players who has come into the professional environment and has thrived.
"He's met every challenge, trains hard, prepares well and the one thing is, does he understand how good he can be?
"I'm delighted to see the way he has progressed, his impact for Ireland over the last two weeks has made him one of the first names on the team-sheet now.
"He has the potential to be one of the stand-out performers at this World Cup, particularly if Ireland are successful."
If Henderson's progress continues at his current pace, Humphreys says there is no telling just how good he can be. With the Lions tour to New Zealand less than two years away, the now Gloucester director of rugby sees the trip as a more than achievable goal.
"For some players they take time to take stock of how much they can achieve, but every step up a level for Iain he has performed at his very best," said Humphreys.
"I do think every time he has met a challenge he has achieved it. But now he's got to find that belief to produce performances week in and week out and become a real leader, that's the measure of a top player.
"He's got to be a leader for Ulster and Ireland, but it's that ability to play at the very top level, whether he's away with Ulster at Zebre, or for the British and Irish Lions away in New Zealand.
"Once he understands that I have no doubt that he will be a star for Ireland for many years to come."
Having won 72 caps for Ireland, all but three of which came at out-half, Humphreys knows how number tens are targeted in Test rugby, but the 44-year-old is sure that Johnny Sexton will cope with any special treatment from Les Bleus this weekend.
Both the French squad and media have been doing their best to unsettle Schmidt's key playmaker in the build-up to Sunday's clash, a profile in Midi Olympique this week quoting former Racing teammates and coaches on how difficult the British and Irish Lion series winner was to work with during his two years at the Parisian club.
"It will be water off a duck's back for him," said Humphreys. "There's a lot of mind games, media battles, it's part of the PR war.
"Everybody understands how important Johnny Sexton is to Ireland, how important Johnny Sexton performing at his best is for Ireland.
"And if France let Johnny play well Ireland will win the game. So they'll try every trick to upset him, but the player he is, the person that he is, I have no doubt he'll be outstanding this weekend.
"He'll be well prepared and I've no doubt he'll perform well."
Pool D: Millennium Stadium, Sun 4.45pm (ITV)