Numbers add up as Iain Henderson makes light work of stats

Iain Henderson: Ulster forward studied maths at Queen's.

Stats have been tarred as the ruination of many a sport, an infestation of numbers that detracts from natural ability and curbs freedom of thought, but Iain Henderson was never likely to be the type to feel swamped by facts and figures.

The Ulster forward was, famously, about to move to Edinburgh to pursue a maths degree when the province’s defence coach Johnny Bell rang with a late counter-offer of a place in the academy in 2010 but the Craigavon man didn’t ditch the original plan when he tore up the plane ticket.

Henderson subsequently signed up to study maths at Queen’s in Belfast and a switch to the Open University since has allowed him pursue that piece of parchment at a pace of his own choosing. 

It makes sense given the reams of information which the modern professional rugby player must sift through.

There are, simply, no hiding places anymore.

Multiple TV cameras peer into every nook and cranny. GPS systems track every movement and Henderson knows that there is no substitute for a no-filter viewing of your own input.

“It is difficult to take emotion out of playing the game because I love playing for Ulster and Ireland,” he explained. 

“You have to have some sort of cutthroat instinct when looking at your performance, analysing yourself, making sure what you have done.

“Is it good enough? Are the impacts good enough? Or have you made the impacts? A lot of is put into stats for us. I don’t mind going through it and figuring out whether I have bettered myself from my previous performance.

“A lot of it does come down to being brutally honest with yourself and having the stubbornness almost to push yourself through, looking at how badly you did things. Realistically, it is the bad things you have to concentrate on to get better.” 

Self-analysis is only half the workload. If that.

Opposing teams demand as much attention and, at Test level, that can mean a look back through as many as the eight previous games. For Ireland this week that could mean eyeballs on Wales as far back as their three-match summer tour to New Zealand.

Setpiece demands particular attention and Wales’ lineout is an interesting case study in and of itself. Singled out as a major contributing factor in their three defeats to the All Blacks last summer, it has been a much more reliable weapon this Six Nations.

Just two of their throws have been lost and, though Jake Ball is the man calling the shots, it is revealing that 24 of the darts have been collected not by himself or Alun Wyn-Jones but by the flankers Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric.

“We have noticed it… They get good quick ball and maul a fair bit off it as well,” said Henderson. 

“It depends on your personnel. Alan Wyn Jones has taken a good bit of ball, Jake Ball not so much but it is only a matter of time.

“We have analysed what they do in certain areas of the field, whether it is a four-man or five-man, six or seven maybe further up the pitch. They have a good variety. We have been looking at the patterns emerging, not just in the championship but in November.” 

With Ireland having won 44 of their 46 lineouts so far, it doesn’t take Henderson’s affinity for numbers to understand that, whatever about the respective results so far, Friday’s encounters out of touch looks like being a contest of equals.

Meanwhile, Leinster have followed up last week’s capture of Australia’s 39-times capped forward Scott Fardy with the signing of Kiwi back James Lowe from the Chiefs. Lowe will join the club after his 2017 Mitre 10 campaign with Tasman ends.

He has made 39 appearances for the Chiefs and scored 18 tries. 

The 24-year old has also represented the Maori All Blacks five times and racked up six tries in the process — one of them against Munster last November — and his capture is being hailed as something of a coup.

Leinster have also announced that Irish international second row Mike McCarthy will be leaving the province at the end of the season. McCarthy joined Leinster from Connacht in 2013. 

He links up with French D2 side RC Narbonne for the 2017/18 campaign.


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