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Rugby World Cup: Iain Henderson hungry and ready for biggest French test

By Jonathan Bradley

He may be one of the youngsters lighting up this World Cup but Iain Henderson has warned opponents that there is still plenty more to come.

Ulster's soon-to-be superstar was Ireland's man-of-the-match in the stuttering performance against Italy last weekend and he figures to be a key component when Joe Schmidt's side meet France in Cardiff on Sunday to decide who tops Pool D and avoids the All Blacks in the quarter-finals.

Both media and teammates are running out of superlatives when it comes to the 23-year-old, but the former Belfast Royal Academy pupil seems to be getting better each time he takes the field, a progression he expects to continue.

"Oh, loads," he replied, when asked if he still had room for improvement.

"I've been reviewing my game over the last few days and I realise that, not only in the set piece, but around the field, especially around ruck-time, I can definitely be a lot more accurate. We were a bit sloppy around the breakdown, set piece and maul. We can do an awful lot better.

"We got some good returns from the first two games from our lineout ball, but we didn't do it as well as we could have against Italy.

"France defend the maul similarly to Italy, but if we can get our heads around the way we defend then I think we can do a bit of damage."

When used as an impact sub for Ireland in recent seasons the one negative on his ledger seemed to be his fitness levels, something he described as an "open topic" earlier in this competition.

Indeed, in an interview with this paper last season he spoke of how the extra exertion involved in playing lock meant he struggled to make a similar impact with ball in hand when compared to being deployed in the back-row.

Such problems appear to be a thing of the past however as, having wrestled the starting number four jersey from Devin Toner thanks to a series of eye-catching performances in the warm-up Tests, Henderson's two outings at this World Cup alongside captain Paul O'Connell have been all-action affairs.

Against the Azzurri, it was not a showing of peaks and troughs but of consistent impacts that made his post-match gong a formality.

Whether it was a big carry, clever use of the choke tackle or his picking up and tossing aside of Italian scrum-half Edoardo Gori, a moment that recalled Stephen Ferris and Will Genia four years ago, Henderson was a factor throughout, testament to the hard work put into improving his conditioning over the last number of months and he will again be out to show the benefits at the Millennium Stadium this weekend.

In something that would have been unheard of for an Irish forward in the not too distant past, Henderson has a good record against Sunday's opponents having avoided defeat in his three previous Test appearances.

Add in successes against Les Bleus at under-20 level and it is little wonder he exudes confidence even when discussing the Gallic penchant for saving their best rugby for knock-out time.

"It's a tough call if both teams play to their potential," he said.

"However, I think we're more than likely the best Ireland team to ever compete in a World Cup and I think if we get all our stuff right, if we get our set piece right as I said and some good counterattack, then I don't see any reason why we can't turn them over."

Do so with Henderson to the fore once again and this World Cup really will be seen as when the young man came of age.


Pool D: Millennium Stadium, Sun 4.45pm (ITV)



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