THE MOST ENCOURAGING words to come from Ireland following Saturday night’s victory in Paris were those that suggested this year’s Six Nations triumph is only the beginning.
Captain Paul O’Connell and head coach Joe Schmidt both stressed that there is more in this Ireland squad, and even in players who haven’t been involved on the pitch in 2014. There is no wild and baseless confidence, but rather determination to continue the improvement.
Openside flanker Chris Henry serves ideally to encapsulate the sentiment. The 29-year-old has shown clear signs of progress under Schmidt’s coaching, and feels that there are further gains to be made, both individually and within the Irish group.
“We’ve got such a massive run-in to the World Cup. When we get to together, we’ve got to focus. I feel a lot of us have improved individually in the last few weeks under Joe. That’s what we needed to do and we need to keep improving, because of the quality of players we have.
There’s no telling how far this team can go. We’ve got a great squad of players and I really think this will be a springboard for us. What a feeling, we’ll enjoy this, but moving forward I think there’s a lot more to come from this group of players.”
Henry has developed into a more complete back row than ever before during this Six Nations campaign, with his flicked assist for Jonny Sexton’s first try on Saturday an example of that.
The Ulsterman was happy to relive a somewhat uncharacteristic moment.
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“I sort of thought the dummy and go might work, but then I saw that they had it covered. I saw Jonny in space and I think we had advantage at that stage, so I just thought ‘I can get this away.’
“Jonny had to do all the hard work but it was nice to be a part of creating a try. The feeling overall is just incredible. You don’t [have time to think about a flick pass like that], it’s just something that comes naturally.
“I suppose I don’t usually give the one-handed offloads, but I said I’d try it there as we had the advantage. That’s why I went for it and I’m just relieved to have pulled it off.”
The only better feeling that winning in rugby is winning alongside friends. In that sense, Henry has been delighted to play alongside the impressive Andrew Trimble during this campaign.
“He’s such a strong runner. I’ve played with him since mini-rugby days and I just think he’s an amazing player. He always wins his aerial battle on kick chase and puts in those big hits.
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“Then his running; he’s such a strong runner and I think he’s had a fantastic tournament. It’s always been a pleasure to play with him. He’s a great guy, a guy you know will dig in deep and put in the hard yards.
“It’s been a pleasure to play with the likes of Andrew, but the whole squad in general, I’ve enjoyed everyone’s company. I think that showed, everyone dug in deep when we had to.”
Henry himself has fitted into Schmidt’s international game plan with utter comfort, smashing rucks in attack, competing ferociously at the defensive breakdown, using his wrestling strength to grapple in the choke tackle and even adding those attacking flourishes when carrying.
The flanker is greatly enjoying the experience of working under Schmidt, being pushed to constantly improve. The Kiwi has earned utter trust from his players, who believe in his the effectiveness of his game plans.
It gives you a lot of confidence because you know if you execute the way Joe wants you to, there’s a good chance you’re going to be in the mix for the game. He’s been incredible to deal with.
“It’s been pretty intense with him and he’s sort of on your toes for you to know your stuff. But that’s what you want; you want a coach to challenge you and I think that’s been something that’s been really, really good for everyone involved.
“You come down to the camps and you’re challenged all the time. The pressure is on you to know your stuff, but once you get that knowledge, and know what he demands of you, you get confidence.”