Ulster Rugby star Chris Henry on why his dad would have told him to 'wise up'
While the mini-stroke he suffered in November 2014 is an unavoidable talking point, there is more to Chris Henry’s back catalogue than just one traumatic episode.
It was in June 2010 that he found himself dealing with a different but still hugely difficult situation. Back then he was in Australia and winning his first cap for Ireland but his introduction to Test rugby came heavily weighed down by personal tragedy.
Henry’s father William had died just four weeks prior to Chris donning the green shirt for the first time at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium.
Under the circumstances, Henry — the middle of three brothers — had been given the option to stay at home. But he reckoned that he just had to play and, anyway, his dad, who had been a huge influence, would have insisted on it.
“My dad would have said to me ‘wise up and get out there and get stuck in’. So I tried to enjoy it as best I could,” the 31-year-old recalls of his rugby enthusiast father who died of cancer.
“It was the best thing for me and for all the family. It was something to focus on.
“But I’ve always had such regrets that he couldn’t have seen me in a green shirt,” he adds.
“I know he would have just been in his element, and loved it, but unfortunately that’s just the way life is sometimes,” says the now 24-times capped Ireland flanker.
He didn’t have his finest game but his mum Denise was there and he got through it which was an achievement in itself regardless of the fact that Ireland lost.
A couple of years earlier and his dad’s influence had been on hand as one of those who urged the then highly disillusioned player — who had been given a development contract in 2006 — to just be patient at Ulster and keep waiting for his chance at senior level.
But by 2008 Henry really wanted out. He tried to get away to England only to have his bid to escape blocked by Ulster who needed him to make up the numbers at training.
He even began to seriously consider his future outside the game. And then it happened. An injury crisis at Ulster forced then coach Matt Williams to throw him from togging out with Ballymena in the AIL, right in at the deep end, against Harlequins in the Heineken Cup in January 2009.
He took his opportunity and, pretty much from there on, has been in the Ulster starting side.
Patience was also a virtue when it came to winning that second Ireland cap and it took two years until he came on in the closing minutes of the disastrous third Test in New Zealand when the tourists were annihilated 60-0.
“I was thinking ‘jeez am I always going to be a one-cap wonder here’ and I was just relieved to get that second cap,” he recalls of a game best forgotten.
Henry’s potential to improve even further had already been spotted by then Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin who, not long after Henry’s Ireland debut, had decided that it was time for the back row man, who usually played number eight, to morph into an openside flanker.
It was an inspired move. Then, with Sean O’Brien missing, he was suddenly the starting number seven for Joe Schmidt in Ireland’s Six Nations title success of 2014.
But there were more hard times to come. The morning of that November seemed just like any other normal pre-match day as Henry and room-mate Rhys Ruddock prepared for the South Africa game.
And then it all suddenly changed with Henry suffering a mini-stroke which, ultimately, led to heart surgery and the distinct possibility that he would never play again.
His imminent retirement was widely predicted but, with his health stabilised, Henry was already planning to return and he was back for Ulster at the end of March, only four months after the scare.
“It was really about focusing on things which are positive that keeps you going,” he states, and his comeback was complete when he made the World Cup squad and was involved in every game up to Ireland’s disappointing exit.
Now, though, he wants to have a tilt at Ireland’s bid for a third straight title and, of course, finally win something with Ulster.
Don’t bet against him defying the odds again.
Belfast Telegraph Digital