A force of nature and a rising forward star with the speed of a wing. The praise heading Iain Henderson’s way is plentiful as he prepares to make his World Cup debut in Ireland’s second row alongside captain Paul O’Connell.
The 23-year-old Ulsterman faces Canada today having edged out O’Connell’s regular lock partner Devin Toner after a run of brilliant form stretching back to the end of last season for province and country.
With 19 Test caps to his name after making his debut against South Africa in November 2012, Henderson is hardly taking a leap into the unknown at the Millennium Stadium and although his partnership with O’Connell is not longstanding they have spent enough time together on and off the field in the last three years for both men to feel at ease working as a unit.
“He’s a very laid back guy Hendy, a little bit like Dev actually,” O’Connell said. “If they were any more laid back they’d be lying down.
“He’s a terrific athlete though and you just can’t coach the attributes he has in terms of his power and speed. He reads the game really well... he’s played in a lot of really big games at Ulster and he’s very confident in his own ability.”
Henderson proved the point when talking about the prospect of starting alongside O’Connell.
“We’ve only played a few games together but I’ve come off the bench with him a good couple of times in the Six Nations.
“We’ve spent the last 10 weeks or so training together in camp, in various games and in various areas of the country. Like Joe (Schmidt) says, I think everything can constantly be improved on, and I do feel comfortable in there with him, but I’m sure I’ll feel more comfortable as the World Cup goes on.”
Both O’Connell and head coach Schmidt referenced Henderson’s try-saving gallop for Ulster against Munster’s Keith Earls in last season’s Pro12 encounter at Ravenhill.
“I think as Paul said, there’s been a number of things that have surprised us about Iain Henderson, and one of them was his speed,” Schmidt said. “Keith Earls is quick, genuinely quick, and the race for that ball was probably about 40 metres, and one of the things that impressed us about Iain is that he saw it as it was about to unfold and managed to get himself into a position to compete for that ball.
“I think we’ve got to know him really well during the last two Six Nations. He was involved in the tackle that managed to hold up the French at the end of the Six Nations two years ago and he had big involvements in the last Six Nations.
“So for us he’s a force of nature that we’d be pretty well aligned with as far as what his abilities are, and I think Paul described him as laid back bordering on horizontal. I think that is him a little bit and so sometimes we want to make sure that he’s really well prepared to drive himself forward. I think he’s been learning a bit of that and I think he balances his day really well. He is truly switched on for sessions and he does switch himself off well.”
Defence coach Les Kiss yesterday offered a further endorsement of Henderson’s ability, backing him to make an impact on the world stage over the next few weeks.
“It’s another step up for him, a big tournament,” Kiss said. “It will be exciting for him, but we’ve seen what he can deliver. The potential is there and if he’s got his mind on and his head right, he can be a damaging player.
“We hope to bring that into the game in some form or other, whether it’s at the set-piece or in the loose. It’s a big opportunity for him.”
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