He has been the breakthrough sensation on Joe Schmidt’s Ireland team this past two months or so, but Iain Henderson believes he is only ambling through the foothills of his potential as he prepares for the biggest game of his young life this weekend.
The Ulster lock-cum-flanker cut a confident, but far from cocky, figure at Ireland’s team base yesterday and it was encouraging to hear the polite and laid-back 23-year old talk himself — and Ireland — up in such a forthright manner ahead of the Pool D showdown with the French.
It wasn’t that he made any bold claims, but his confident air and no-filter answers were refreshing to the ear, starting with his admittance that being named man of the match against Italy last Sunday had injected a fresh supply of confidence into his system.
Most players bat those questions away and revert to rehearsed answers about the importance of the collective and he was just as matter-of-fact when asked if there was much more to be seen from him as a player in the days, weeks and years to come.
“Oh, loads. I’ve been reviewing my game over the last few days and I realise that, not only in the set-piece, but around the field, especially around ruck-time, I can definitely be a lot more accurate. We were a bit sloppy around the breakdown, set-piece and maul. We can do an awful lot better.
“We got some good returns from the first two games from our lineout ball, but we didn’t do it as well as we could have against Italy. France defend the maul similarly to Italy, but if we can get our heads around the way they defend then we can do a bit of damage there.”
Henderson’s belated bolt for a starting place has been fired by the frustrations of a hip injury that kept him sidelined for part of last season and left him too far back to compete for a starting place in the successful Six Nations campaign.
He played in all five of those games, but none for more than 18 minutes, and his briefest stint was a five-minute cameo against France which brought to just 24 the total number of minutes he has banked against ‘Les Bleus’ over the course of three seasons.
For them, he is a blank page.
He is someone their media know little or nothing about and Richie Murphy found himself being asked about this ‘End-air-son’ by one French journalist after the player himself had spoken to a huge press pack beefed up by media from the UK and the continent.
Sean O’Brien was asked for his two cents worth, too.
“He’s mentally very strong, he’s a kind of a freak on the field,” said the flanker. “You could see him even last weekend, picking up players and firing them around. So he’s a very important player for us in the physical aspect of things and he’s fitted very well.
“He’s obviously another carrier that we can have as well on the field.”
His presence in the XV was no sure thing. Though Devin Toner’s form had plateaud in his role alongside Paul O’Connell, the Leinster man is always a godsend at lineouts and he has responded well to his demotion with an impressive cameo around the field against Italy last Sunday.
The impact of Toner, Chris Henry and Sean Cronin off the bench was, in fact, one of the brighter aspects to a collective Ireland performance that fell below the usual high standards, though Henderson’s confidence seems unshaken by such stutters.
If Ireland perform as they can, he can only see one winner.
“From previous World Cups we know how dangerous the French can be, but if we get our game right and get our set-piece running very effectively, not only on our ball but on the French ball as well, scrum and lineout, then we should be able to get the upper hand on them.
“We’ve seen before, the French are a force to be reckoned with at World Cups, turning over teams like New Zealand and other teams of note. There’s no reason why they can’t put up a performance like that against us.
“However, we’re more than likely the best Ireland team to ever compete in a World Cup and if we get all our stuff right, if we get our set-piece right as I said, and some good counter-attack, then I don’t see any reason why we can’t turn them over.”
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