Iain Henderson will start against the All Blacks for the first time today, a testament that good things come to those that wait. Yet the lock also knows it will need a considerable step up in the team’s performance levels if it is to be a successful day at Tokyo Stadium.
The lock may have experienced victory over New Zealand last November in that 16-9 nailbiter at the Aviva Stadium but it was as a replacement and the fact injury denied him a role in the historic win over the All Blacks at Soldier Field in Chicago two years earlier has served as a motivational tool for him and a number of forward pack-mates who are eager to make a little Irish rugby history for themselves as part of the team that booked a first trip to the World Cup semi-finals.
“Chicago was such an incredible game in Irish rugby history, for a load of different reasons, I would have loved to have been involved,” Henderson said. “I remember watching it from home and thinking it was unbelievable.
“The tight result in the return leg of that, I think a lot of the players — Pete (O’Mahony), maybe, Seanie (O’Brien and myself). We were going out saying: ‘Flip, it’s our time to have a crack at them now. Everyone else was over there having a go.’ And that actually riled us up more, the fact that we didn’t get a chance to play there (in Chicago).
“That has put a taste in people’s mouths for what we have the potential to do. The performances that we’ve shown so far in the World Cup probably wouldn’t warrant that. I think we need to step up to the next level and I think everyone is prepared to do so.
“We’ve been building nicely and training feels like we’re building nicely into these next few days. More or less all our preparation is done now. We just have to make sure that come Saturday, we deliver.”
Now 27, and deep into his second World Cup campaign, Henderson will win his 53rd cap for Ireland today and aside from coming into some great form, the Ulster star has also developed into an important leader within the squad. Some evolution from where he felt he was at the 2015 World Cup.
The last time I was the second-row substitute. Paulie was there, Dev was there, Donnacha Ryan was there. Those types of players were obviously people who I always watched growing up, and they were always players that I learned from. I learned an awful lot from.
“So to not have any of the likes of those players there, the other second-rows in this squad are a similar age or younger than me coming through, and it’s unbelievable to see the work-rate that they want to put in, the amount that they want to learn. And I think a lot more, slightly regrettably than I might have had at that stage.
“So I think that’s massively exciting and that gives me massive confidence, and that’s not only in the second-row department, that’s across the pitch. Everyone wants to be involved in crunch games. You mightn’t feel as comfortable in a higher-pressure situation but you want to be there. That’s the position any professional sportsperson strives to be in. No-one wants to be playing in games that nobody wants to watch.”
There will be plenty of people with their gaze turned to the television screen this morning for this potentially titanic clash at Tokyo Stadium and the do-or-die nature of knockout rugby is heightened by the knowledge that defeat will spell the end of not just coaches Joe Schmidt and Greg Feek but Henderson’s captain and friend Rory Best’s time in Irish colours.
“It’s something I hadn’t thought about. It didn’t really strike home, but after the last game I thought ‘flip, that actually could have been Rory’s last game had we not performed.’ And that didn’t hit home until driving on the bus from the stadium.
“That could have been a complete disaster. I think the amount that he’s added he probably definitely deserves a performance from everyone around him. He doesn’t want this to be his last game. I don’t want it to be his last game. I don’t want this to be Greg Feek’s last game.
"I don’t want it to be Joe Schmidt’s last game. I think that is unanimous throughout the whole squad. I think everyone this week has shown added effort in building towards doing the best we can I suppose to ensure that it’s not.”