No French flirting for Iain Henderson as contract nears

Iain Henderson’s agent may be in the midst of his contract negotiations with the IRFU but the Ulster forward wasn’t exactly fluttering his eyes at any English or French suitors yesterday when asked for an update.

No French flirting for Iain Henderson as contract nears

The 25-year had spoken in recent months about the need to balance financial and rugby considerations and he is well aware of his market value as a British and Irish Lion and the fact that Donnacha Ryan’s departure to France only strengthens his hand with the union.

His ability to hop between the second row and back row is another card in what is a strong hand.

His current contract expires in the summer but he was very much to the point when asked tongue-in-cheek yesterday where he might be off to.

“Hopefully nowhere, all being well,” he said.

“It has been difficult because of the run of games that we’ve had and how intense training has been. The two European games were so close together and just off the back of the autumn [Tests] so there has been a bit of a delay with being back up and down to Dublin.”

This wasn’t the usual ploy — have an agent leak details of interest from abroad and big up the numbers involved — so Henderson’s words and attitude would suggest that a deal is imminent to keep him on these shores.

Peter O’Mahony’s future was secured with Munster and Ireland only last week but he had made a point prior to that about wanting it done by January 1. Henderson claimed to have no concrete date in his mind. It is, he said, all in the hands of his agent Andy Park.

Ulster — and Ireland — can ill afford to lose him.

The province has reignited its Champions Cup ambitions with the back-to-back defeats of Harlequins this month but they are treading uncertain ground: light on star power up front and in need of an out-half that they can build around for the foreseeable future.

He may be the laidback type but Henderson has been talked about as a future club captain for some time. He is already an accomplished lineout caller and a man of his ilk and Craigavon roots is all the more vital now that the provincial rugby borders are not as definitive as they once were.

Irish players have long been finding niches for themselves in neighbouring provinces and, though Ulster were slower to open their doors to that new reality, they have been buttressed by a considerable wave of players for whom Dublin has proven to be a cul de sac.

Chief among them is scrum-half John Cooney who pitched up via Belfast. He will be joined at the Kingspan Stadium next season by Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy and there is a small community of Leinster academy grads on the premises to boot.

“It’s probably … to do with the levels of professionalism increasing,” said Henderson of all that migration.

“As they have increased maybe people lose a bit of ego about who they play for. They are not as stubborn and realise that for their own career it may be a lot better to move somewhere else, even though it may be one of their biggest rival clubs.”

Second row Alan O’Connor was the first to go up, in 2012. Nick Timoney and Dave Shanahan are others to follow the route. It makes eminent sense from a playing point of view. Henderson knows that but agrees too that it poses challenges for the province’s sense of self.

“We’re not just a feeder club for Leinster who’ll pick up the scraps,” he said at one point.

The province has made concrete steps to maintain their sense of identity and history. Tommy Bowe is head of a committee that organises monthly or bi-monthly meet-ups between past players and some of the younger and newer squad members.

The idea is to pass on what it means to represent the province and wear the iconic white jersey, which is an integral prop for a slightly bonkers but significant post-game song and celebration aimed at strengthening the collective bond.

“We lift the jersey above our head and we get to throw a wet jersey at whoever we want. Chanting and yelling like hooligans, like idiots, to be honest. That’s part of it. It’s something that everyone in the squad buys into.

“After a hard-fought game the last thing you want to do is jump and tire yourself out even more but it probably one of the best bits of the night. A few of the new boys when they come in look at what everyone is doing and getting on like idiots and they all buy into it. It’s great craic.”

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