Champions Cup Pool 1 - Ulster v La Rochelle
The Irish international and British and Irish Lion will start in the second row against the leaders of Pool 1, with a win for the home side opening up an opportunity to qualify for the quarter-finals, something Ulster has failed to do in the last three years. Henderson is forthright about the worrying form of recent weeks in the Guinness PRO14 and feels harsh lessons must be learned, particularly after the 38-7 defeat against Leinster last weekend.
“Things didn’t go our way, and it didn’t provoke a reaction amongst us,” said Henderson, who accepted that scrum coach Aaron Dundon’s comment, that players had too often been “spectators”, was justified.
“It’s been like that for the last three weeks, I feel anyway, in every game. I think everyone at some point has been guilty of it. It should be an easy ‘fix’, people should be working hard not only for themselves, but for others. It was rectified in training this week, people worked hard for each other, but I suppose, in a close match, it’s a completely different matter.
“I wouldn’t say it’s worrying, I’d say it’s more frustrating and it’s definitely annoying. I think we’re just at a rocky crossing, so to speak. It’s not an overnight thing, it’s something we’re going to have to work on,” he said, thoughtfully.
Looking towards the clash with La Rochelle in a sold-out Kingspan Stadium at lunchtime, Henderson regards the tie as the most pivotal game of the season so far.
“I feel it’s definitely one that holds the most pressure. It’ll be an interesting afternoon; the European games against big French teams, they always are. We need a proper performance. I’m not talking about winning, or scoring 50 points, I’m saying a team performance, solid in defence and in attack, sealing up a lot of those leaks we’ve had over the last number of weeks,” he said with some force.
He’ll partner Alan O’Connor in the engine room of an Ulster side showing five changes from the line-up which started at the RDS. Nick Timoney comes back at No 8, winger Craig Gilroy and centre Louis Ludik are restored to the three-quarters, and John Cooney returns to partner Christian Leali’ifano, who’ll be making his final appearance for the team at home before he returns to Australia after his short-term deal in Belfast.
The visitors have undergone major surgery, joint coaches Patrice Collazo and Xavier Garbajosa retaining only five of the Top14 team which was held to a 38-38 draw by struggling Oyannox last weekend. All Black lock Jason Eaton is back from injury, but only his partner Mathieu Tanguy and loose forward Kevin Gourdon remain in the pack, while there is significant change behind the scrum, notably a starting half-back pairing of Alexi Bales and Jeremy Sinzelle, more usually deployed on the wing, at out-half.
La Rochelle can ensure quarter-final qualification with a win, but victory for second-placed Ulster would see knockout hopes almost certainly defined in the final Pool game at Wasps nest weekend.
C Piutau; C Gilroy, L Ludik, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Leali’ifano, J Cooney; C Black, R Best (capt), R Ah You; A O’Connor, I Henderson; M Rea, N Timoney, S Reidy.
R Herring, K McCall, R Kane, K Treadwell, C Henry, D Shanahan, J McPhillips, D Cave.
K Murimurivalu; G Lacroix, G Doumayrou, P Aguillon, V Rattez; J Sinzelle, A Bales; D Priso, P Bourgarit, U Atonio; J Eaton (capt), M Tanguy; B Veivuke, V Vito, K Gourdon.
J-C Orioli, V Pelo, M Boughanmi, G Lamboley, A Amosa, Kerr-Barlow, B Nobles, P Jordaan.
Wayne Barnes (England)