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Ulster's new faces are forcing our old guard to dig deep: Henderson


Breaking through: Iain Henderson in action
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While there is an obvious desire to look forward rather than back when it comes to Ulster Rugby, last summer's exodus remains a talking point in the early days of this campaign.

Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe, Paul Marshall, Robbie Diack and Callum Black all left the changing room for the last time when last season concluded, and 12 months prior it had been Roger Wilson and Ruan Pienaar. That group alone combined for well over 1,000 outings in the white jersey.

Arguably only Pienaar was first choice by the time he made his final appearance but, with those filling the void all having more rugby ahead of them than behind, the shift in the squad profile remains dramatic.

Take, for example, Iain Henderson.

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Given his talents, he has been considered a central figure at Ulster for a number of seasons, but now, at 26-years old, he has to be seen as something of a veteran presence as well.

"It's changed the whole dynamic in the dressing room," he reflected. "There's a fair few new faces but I've been really impressed by everyone who's come in.

"Coming back into pre-season a few weeks after the Ireland tour, I was really impressed how pre-season was running, and it stood to us the way guys were training and stayed true to it since I came back in, and it's been great. It's been a real change of atmosphere.

"I think training has been a lot more competitive, and I think the players coming in and the young lads now are really pushing for places immediately.

"They're really asking big questions of the guys that have been there for a long time. That's great, that's what we need, guys who are constantly week in, week out training, putting pressure on the old fellas and starting to stir the pot a bit. That's something we've needed. The guys who have come in have done really well and have adapted really well into the way we've been training, and it's been great.

"It's definitely a positive change, those guys have been missed and will be missed but, like I said, the young players and the new guys who have come in have stepped things up and really taken the bull by the horns in training.

"It's only been positive so hopefully we can maintain that. I'm not really fussed by what happens on the pitch, as long as we can maintain the way we've been training and keep steering the ship in the right direction."

Henderson wasted little time in doing that to start this season.

He had played just once, for Ireland against Australia, since injuring his knee against Munster back in April, but came straight back into the starting side against Scarlets last week.

Rather than showing any signs of rust, Henderson's performance at the set-piece was imperious, making himself a pest when the Welsh visitors had several promising positions from line-outs.

In what turned out to be just a two-point win, Scarlets taking advantage of only one such opportunity could have been the difference between winning and losing.

While there wasn't as many of the bulldozing carries that marked his burst onto the scene, this was a performance no less effective, a showing containing hallmarks of two of his early mentors, Johann Muller and Paul O'Connell.

"Those guys ran the line-out extremely well, but they weren't going to be there for the entirety of everyone's career, somebody at some stage was going to have to step into that role," said Henderson of his approach to attacking opposition darts.

"The last couple of years that's been Dev (Devin Toner) with Ireland, that was an automatic transition and it's something that I've enjoyed learning and being able to practice, not only in training but in games as well.

"I do enjoy it when it goes well, but it's equally frustrating when it doesn't, when you plan and do your homework but then you don't see what you thought you'd see after you did your homework and you don't make those reads that you do.

"It's very difficult to do a lot of homework on a team that hasn't played many games. We didn't have a lot to go on (against Scarlets).

"We knew where we could target in the line-out, and I suppose it is a mix of reads and a bit of homework. We had an idea of who their personnel was going to be, and when you see a team you get an idea of who you want to target in their line-out."

His next target will be Edinburgh this evening, a fixture that brings back bad memories from a year ago after the Scots were one of two sides to beat Ulster in Belfast.

While these remain the earliest of days in the new season, a contest against a presumed play-off rival from your own conference remains a high-stake contest.

"It's always extremely frustrating for us to lose here," said Henderson. "That's something we do like to pride ourselves on, we know when we play here the home advantage we get from playing here is phenomenal.

"We take great pride in playing well here and I think it's more frustrating in our memory, not against Edinburgh but against ourselves for not playing well and doing ourselves justice at home.

"Nearly every game in the PRO14 is a tough one now, every team is a potential slip-up, especially when you see how tight it gets towards the end of the season. We just need to make sure we relish these home games and put the pressure on, especially at this end of the year when the conditions are good and we can try and play the rugby we know we can play and get the wins we know we can get.

"Edinburgh are a good side, and I thought they were a bit unlucky last week, coming back later on in the game against the Ospreys, and that scoreline (a 17-13 defeat) probably didn't do them justice.

"They'll be coming over here looking to right their wrong from last week."

Bradley’s Verdict


Two teams who will be seeking improvement this week even after achieving very different results in round one. With the added experience of Rob Herring and debutant Jordi Murphy to boost the squad, Ulster have an especially strong-looking panel for this time of year and will be seeking to avenge their defeat in this fixture last season. They’ll once again be made to battle but should come out on top in a close one.

Belfast Telegraph

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Breaking through: Iain Henderson in action