"I was thinking, ‘There’s no way this guy could be a rugby player. He just doesn’t look the part'"
"It just shows that you don’t judge a book by its’ cover."
Back in November 2012, Declan Kidney gave an Ireland debut to Iain Henderson that was overshadowed by Michael Bent arriving off the plane from his native New Zealand to line out in the green jersey too.
Back then, Bent making his Ireland debut before he had even played for Leinster prompted an exasperated Keith Wood to remark, "How in the name of Jesus are we getting to this point?!"
While Bent's fast-tracking into the Ireland team [he had an Irish grandmother, mind you] grabbed most of the headlines, one South African player was similarly bemused when he saw Henderson heading out onto the pitch for his Test bow.
On House of Rugby Ireland, Springboks and Ulster star Marcell Coetzee spoke with hosts Ian Madigan and Eimear Considine (from 56:30 below) about his reaction to seeing Henderson running out to play him at the Aviva Stadium.
Coetzee, himself, had just broken into the South African Test side after impressing with Super Rugby side, the Sharks.
Having come up through the underage ranks with the mammoth duo of Pieter Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth, Coetzee was used to playing alongside boys that looked like men and packed a punch. Asked about a post-match jersey swap that stands out, Coetzee recalled:
"I think the one that sticks out for me is, in 2012 we played Ireland here at the Aviva Stadium. There was an Irish player making his debut at the time, there. I must say, when he first came on and I was watching him across the scrum, I was thinking, ‘There’s no way this guy could be a rugby player. He just doesn’t look the part for me!’.
"Ultimately, in time, I was proven so wrong because the player gave me his jersey. We swapped jerseys afterwards and managed to chat a little bit. Without knowing, many years later that player turned out to be Iain Henderson, my captain here at Ulster, and a British & Irish Lion."
"How wrong was I, in that case!" Coetzee exclaimed. "It just shows that you don’t judge a book by its’ cover.
"And he just managed to grow into one of the best players we have hear at the club, and in Ireland. And it is just phenomenal being captained by him as well. His leadership qualities show, and I think we’ve missed that at the moment, and that calmness an experience that he brings. I think that is a story that really sticks out with me, without knowing that we would be teammates one day, where the road might lead us and, ultimately, it led to Ulster and us both laughing about that story now."
Nicknamed 'The Llama' by his Ulster teammates, for a period when he let the mane and beard grow, Henderson is a laconic figure off the pitch. He can also be quite measured and unflappable on the pitch too.
Ronan O'Gara, who played with Henderson in 2012 and 2013, once told The Hard Yards that the Ulster lock was a clean pro but 'I wouldn't agree that he's a monster'. O'Gara commented:
"The monsters for me are the Quinlans, the Leamys, the Ferris's, the Sean O'Briens, in the back row. I don't see that yet. I think he needs to add dog,"
"You'd love to be able to play behind him with a baseball bat and hammer him so he's really on edge all the time. That will bring his game to a whole new level - when he's on edge."
Now 28, Henderson has been hearing comments like that - from teammates, coaches, supporters and pundits - for the best part of a decade. The Ulster captain is happy with where he's at, however.
"I think most people you'd talk to would tell you I'm a relatively calm individual," he said, last month. "I don't get fired up that often.
"And when it comes to games, it's time to work. It's time to go do what we do. There's a lot of guys that will get really fired up in training and fired up when they don't get things right. I would definitely like to bring a more calm approach.
"As a captain in the changing room, there are a lot of boys that like to really rile things up, shouting and yipping and yo-ing. Sometimes that works well, and works for me - with other guys doing it - but I'm not that type of character. As a captain, I have relied on players doing that. At Ulster, certain players stepping up and riling those types of boys up.
"It's definitely a mix. If you had a team full of people who are calm, level-headed and don't shout, you might end up being flat, a lot of the time. While if you end up on a team full of people that like to scream and show how passionate they are, you might end up with a team that could get very angry at themselves and flustered quite a bit. You need a relative balance."
Henderson has found the balance that he believes is best. It has certainly worked, for Ulster and Ireland.
He was a midweek Lion in 2017 but never reached the Test heights. If he can do the business in 2021, he might get another crack at it - and against Coetzee - in South Africa.
YOU CAN WATCH THAT FULL EPISODE HERE:
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Season 3 has returned with Ian Madigan & Eimear Considine as hosts, and has already featured interviews with Brian O'Driscoll, Nigel Owens, Sean Cronin, Shane Williams, Mike Brown, CJ Stander, Ugo Monye, Sene Naoupu, Schalk Burger, Dan Leo, James Lowe and Marcell Coetzee.