“Enjoying pre-season, and the grind that it brings.”
Recently, as Ireland launched their World Cup jerseys for France 2023, we had an opportunity to catch up with Ulster captain Iain Henderson. He was in typically laconic humour and opened up on a number of subjects.
It had been a while since I had been to the IRFU’s High Performance Centre, yet passing Simon Easterby on the drive in is a good indicator you are heading in the right direction. On the way up to chat with Henderson and Ross Byrne, I meet Conor Murray and Tadhg Beirne and pass on congratulations for the United Rugby Championship win.
Perhaps that thought is still fresh in my mind as I ask Byrne, not long after, if any of the Munster lads showed up for Ireland camp with a URC medal around their necks. The Leinster outhalf gives that one short shrift, and rightly so.
Henderson comes in next, decked out in the new Canterbury jersey and looking a few years younger without the beard. Asked how he is enjoying the pre-season slog, the lock jokes, “One of the lads said, in the session this afternoon, he was tasting the salmon he had for lunch!
“But that is brought about through hard rugby work rather than, let’s say, an aimless task to make you vomit.”Forwards, from left, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne and James Ryan during Ireland rugby squad training at the IRFU High Performance Centre. (Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile)
Iain Henderson on training camp changes
“The tough sessions have been tough because of rugby,” says Iain Henderson, “rather than because of other reasons. That is something the players had highlighted about other World Cup camps – that it was important for us to focus on rugby for those small windows that we actually get together for.”
The likes of Keith Earls, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Cian Healy are the veterans of the 2011 World Cup squad, under Declan Kidney, while a much greater number will have experienced those intense preparation camps of Joe Schmidt, in 2015 and 2019. Andrew Trimble, and old Ulster and Ireland teammate of Henderson’s, once said the match walk-through at Carton House – with Schmidt watching closely – was often a scary prospect than a Test match itself.
Henderson says Andy Farrell is brilliant at seeking out feedback from players, coaches and other staff to create a programme that suits all parties, but gets the best out of the squad. He adds:
“Something that we felt was that we wanted to continue more with the rugby side of things. We may have felt we didn’t get a huge amount of benefit from aimlessly flogging ourselves. In saying that, some of the rugby sessions we’ve done have been tougher than any of the conditioning work – be it mauling, speed of play, players dropping out and fresh ones coming in. It has all been done in an incredibly productive manner, and a constructive one too. It’s been well thought out.”
Henderson was part of the 2015 and 2019 World Cup squads, with bigger pressure and focus on Ireland in that latter tournament due to them peaking at World No.1 weeks out from the tournament, their 2018 Grand Slam and claiming World Rugby Team of the Year, nine months after that.
“In 2019 we obviously felt,” Henderson starts, before stopping to mull the question.
Iain Henderson with his son Freddy after Ireland’s 2023 Six Nations win over France, at Aviva Stadium. (Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile)
“We were obviously a good team – we had decent players and a bunch of good results behind us – but I’m not 100% sure if we went in best prepared for that World Cup. And I’m not 100% what was behind it, or what it was down to. Be it the structure of that World Cup or our lead-up into it. That was discussed a lot with Faz, with the physios, S&C staff, other rugby coaches, players, nutritionists, everyone from a whole range, all to ensure he could nail this one.”
Iain Henderson on Johnny Sexton ban
We spoke to Iain Henderson two days out from the Johnny Sexton EPCR misconduct hearing, which eventually saw the Ireland captain banned for all three of his country’s World Cup warm-ups.
Of all the people connected with the Irish team, before and after that ban was confirmed, Henderson was the only person who made sense on it and looked at the issue from a human perspective. Of course, Andy Farrell and many of his players were never going to say how disruptive it is to be without the captain and attacking talisman for three important matches. And yet, Henderson did admit the whole drama would have an adverse effect, more so on the man than the wider squad:
“To be honest,” he began, “I don’t think [the hearing] has been really spoken about. Johnny has been plugging away, training away, being Johnny and getting on with his work. Training as normal.
“Probably, in my head… it’s probably been a huge stress for Johnny. It’s probably something he has been worried about for a good number of weeks now.
“For the other players, maybe they’ve been thinking about, but there are often hearings on a weekly basis – URC, Europe, whatever else. Maybe normality is not the word for it, but we’re well used to potentially having players banned for games, and whatnot, and seeing how it will unfold. For the most of it, though, Johnny has been Johnny about the place.”
One of the elements that will aid the cause of many World Cup hopefuls is versatility, and Henderson has shown that – for Ulster, Ireland and the Lions – over the years.
Asked if he has let Farrell and his fellow coaches know they have another blindside they can call upon, if needed, he remarks, “If they don’t know that already, I would like you to let them know! It’s handy, but Tadhg Beirne would be much more likely to go to 6, if they need. Then Ryan Baird.
“If they need a third-choice, of the second rows, for blindside flanker, I could maybe put my hand up.”Iain Henderson was speaking at the launch of Canterbury’s Ireland Rugby World Cup Jerseys which will be worn by the team in France this autumn. The jerseys are on sale now at Canterbury.com, and via Intersports Elverys, in store and on Elverys.ie.
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