FOOTBALL SCOUTS OFTEN mention that it can take just two or three seconds to know they are watching a special player.
The same can be said of rugby, where a burst of activity – be it a clinical try-scoring pass, an intelligent turnover or a dominant tackle – can leave the viewer in little doubt that they are observing a future star of the game.
Iain Henderson has been providing many of those moments in recent years, standing out for the Ireland U20s and with his province Ulster. His powerful and constantly developing 6ft 6ins frame has always marked him out as something different.
While there have been many examples of his ball carrying threat in the last four seasons, none sticks in the mind quite like the rapid burst of excellence against Saracens in the Heineken Cup quarter-final last year [below].
The sidestep, the pirouette away from the second tackler, the fending off of a third before a vicious hand-off on the fourth; Henderson followed it all up by pumping his legs through contact to earn even more metres.
Ball carrying has always been a strength for the 22-year-old second row/blindside flanker, and even now he admits “I prefer playing six because you can get your hands on the ball a wee bit more.”
The vast majority of Henderson’s rugby this season has come at lock though, and that is where he played for Ireland off the bench against Scotland and England during the current Six Nations campaign. The Ulsterman outlines that there is a notable difference between the two positions.
That points to the area of the game where Henderson is working hard to learn as much as possible. If he is picked at lock, the Ballynahinch clubman is aware that he will need to continue his improvement in the ‘donkey work’ elements, but points out that he is under the tutelage of the right people.
Training with the likes of Paul O’Connell here, and Dan Tuohy and Johann Muller back at home, they’re continually giving me tips on what I can do better. I’m happy to learn from them and pick up experience. Any training session with them, I’m always learning.”
Ireland’s coaching staff have asked Henderson to bring the same intensity he demonstrates when carrying the ball into every other area of his game. Forwards coach John Plumtree has been impressed with the response from a player he rates highly.
“I was really excited when I first saw Iain Henderson play. He’s a guy who has a skillset that is really high and he’s a big man as well. The challenge for Iain as a player is to make sure that his work rate is really high in everything he does.
“It’s not about doing one thing really well, it’s about doing lots of things really well. We’ve dished out that challenge to him and I think he’ll be really excited if he gets an opportunity this weekend.”
Henderson’s two starts at senior level for Ireland have come in the number six jersey [against the US and Fiji, the latter of which was an uncapped game], and with Peter O’Mahony struggling with a hamstring strain this week, there may be an opening there again for the encounter with Italy on Saturday.
Henderson points out that he has been training as both a second row and back row for province and country this season, so knows his “detail on all aspects of the positions.” Even if he doesn’t get the starting nod this weekend, the former Belfast Royal Academy student understands that the bench plays an important role too.
I think at my age, and with how much experience I have, I just need to be getting game time. I have hardly any caps for Ireland [eight] and I think if I can get game time coming off the bench in the second row or at six at this stage, it’s always a positive for me.”
Henderson has “absolutely loved” his involvement in a second consecutive Six Nations campaign for Ireland, and is aware that he has played a part in the success of the John Plumtree’s pack so far.
The plaudits are rolling in for Ireland’s work at the maul, line-out and scrum, but much like with his individual ability, Henderson says he and his teammates are looking for more progress.
“Like everything, you have to look at it and criticise and make sure that everything you do is slightly better. The lift can be slightly higher, the throw can be slightly more spot on, or the delivery to the scrum-half more accurate. We’re looking to improve even more.”