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Dublin: 12 °C Wednesday 3 September, 2014

Iain Henderson breaking the mould as Ireland bid to break Italian spirit

The versatile forward is respectful, but confident of taking on all comers for the role of blindside with Ulster and Ireland

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

IAIN HENDERSON WON’T allow himself to be pigeon-holed into any convenient boxes.

The Ulster forward has shown an ability to bide his time, but he’s impatient. He’s 6’ 6”, agile and quick. His job requires a high level of intensity, but he’s incredibly relaxed. He’s not daunted by anything, but he’s respectful of those who stand in his way.

Most young pros put forward for interview will visibly tense up and go wherever they’re put. A fortnight past his 22nd birthday, Henderson effortlessly takes charge, pointing on down a Carton House hallway to a place he can sit down.

‘I’ve never seen him unbelievably happy or unbelievably disappointed. He’s just steady’, says Andrew Trimble of his team-mate for club and country. And ‘Hendy’ lives up to the billing.

Today marks just his second start for Ireland, yet by the time he sits down to chat here the news has well and truly sunk in. “Yeah”, he agrees to a query whether he’s delighted - ”I’m loving it.”

The average reaction of the up and coming star is disbelief to the situation they find themselves in, but Henderson is far from average. This mathematics student knows his true worth.

Injury has granted Henderson his wish of a ninth cap today. His addition to the starting line-up in place of Peter O’Mahony is the only change made by Joe Schmidt for the Six Nations clash with Italy, despite calls for a change-up throughout.

His position may be a subject for much debate over the coming months and years, but he, in his own mind, knows exactly where his long-term future ought to lie.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” today’s blindside asserts, “with my level of experience I just need to get game time in either position. I’ve only got eight caps for Ireland and whether it be second row or back row I need to get game time. I do prefer playing back row, I think it plays to my strengths more than second row.”

The big man is well aware of the toes he is treading on in marking out his future as a six. Stephen Ferris’ injury played a major part in his quick rise through the Ulster ranks, but Henderson’s ideal scenario at the minute sees him competing against the World Cup 2011 hero for one jersey.

For a guy who has not yet cemented down a regular starting berth for his province, all this may sound a little premature. Crucially though, Henderson has an ability to continuously prove himself technically sound on top of the easy, infectious confidence that is reinforced with each appearance.

“I can understand completely [why he hasn’t nailed down the number six shirt at Ulster], you’ve got Robbie Diack who is vastly experienced, you’ve got Nick Williams, Roger Wilson, Chris Henry, even the likes of Stevie Ferris.

“Stevie’s an experienced player with 30 odd caps for Ireland and 100 caps for Ulster. When he comes back on the scene, I can’t expect to just walk in and start expecting to start ahead of Stevie Ferris.

“In the second row, Johann Muller is retiring at the end of this season and, say for instance, Dan Tuohy has a broken arm; I might need to cover second” row and I’m happy that I’m able to do that. If they need me there I can play there.”

Confident, assured, but there is absolutely zero trace of Diva about Henderson… there are enough nicknames already knocking around to keep him looking over his shoulders.

Iain Henderson celebrates after the game

Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

“I haven’t actually noticed that one,” he says of Whiff of Cordite’s decision to refer to him only as ‘The New Willie John McBride’. “I’ve noticed people tagging me baby-faced assassin in a couple of tweets and down here they call me Llama.”

Three nicknames, a wide spectrum between praise and derision.

Henderson is finding himself having to juggle patience with a sense that he should be playing more on the international stage. He may be a relaxed individual, but his talents make it extremely difficult to settle for a place on the sideline.

“I try and not let myself get frustrated. I try to stay relaxed and keep a wee bit more calm about the place, make sure if I do get on I play well and then it’s only a matter of time before I get selected – the coaches at Ulster and Ireland are good enough coaches to see that.”

His mother a rower and his father an accomplished player at league level, the genes were always  on Henderson’s side, though he had to fight for a place at the dinner table with his two older brothers.

Henderson didn’t make it into the first XV of the Royal Belfast Academy school team until his final year. Once there though, he began pulling up trees. Along with his lifelong friend Stuart Olding, he helped Academy into the Schools final in 2010 and from there,”things snowballed.” The final, though lost, paved the way for his introduction to the Ulster age grades and then, in 2012, his senior Ireland debut.

While O’Mahony has arguably been Ireland’s player of the Championship thus far, the addition of Henderson has the potential to add a whole new dynamic to Schmidt’s side.

The already-powerful line-out and maul will have some added weight behind it and the 22-year-old will also offer a powerful option as a ball-carrier.

Henderson ought to take it as a compliment that Jacques Brunel apparently guessed Schmidt’s team selection and opted to mirror the call at blindside where the Frenchman placed second row Josh Furno as a counterbalance to the imposing ‘Llama’.

A second row playing blindside is not a description that will be deemed a compliment by Henderson, however, so watch out for the new addition to Schmidt’s side attempting to break the mould today.

Ireland: R Kearney, A Trimble, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, D Kearney; J Sexton, C Murray: C Healy, R Best, M Ross; D Toner, P O’Connell (Capt.), I Henderson, C Henry, J Heaslip.

Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, M Moore, R Ruddock, J Murphy, E Reddan, P Jackson, F McFadden.

Italy: L McLean; A Esposito, M Campagnaro, G Garcia, L Sarto; L Orquera, T Tebaldi; A de Marchi, L Ghiraldini, M Castrogiovanni; Q Geldenhuys, M Bortalami (capt.); J Furno, P Derbyshire, R Barbieri.

Replacements: D Giazzon, M Rizzo, L Cittadini, A Pavanello, M Vosawai, E Gori, T Allan, A Masi.

Referee: N Owens.

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