NOTE: Ulster this evening confirmed that Iain Henderson will be sidelined for “several weeks” with a finger injury, which is referred to in the below article, which was published before Ulster’s update.
IRELAND COACH JOE Schmidt will have taken heart from several elements of Ulster’s comeback win over Leicester on Saturday.
John Cooney, his likely back-up scrum-half against England in two weekends’ time, returned from a back issue to inspire Ulster’s turnaround in his 30-minute cameo from the bench.
Henderson had a superb game for Ulster. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO
Ulster now have a Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final against Leinster to look forward to at the end of March, meaning more high-level exposure for several of his Ireland internationals in a World Cup year.
There were further signs of promise in the performances of players like 21-year-old Robert Baloucoune and loosehead prop Eric O’Sullivan – who Schmidt has name-checked a couple of times now.
Perhaps as important as anything in the short-term, Iain Henderson was man of the match as he returned after a month-long layoff due to a thumb injury.
The timing has been ideal, with Ulster getting their talismanic lock back for Saturday’s encounter at Welford Road as they secured their quarter-final.
And Ireland now have Henderson back fit and firing as the England clash looms.
Schmidt does, of course, have strong second row options in Devin Toner, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne and Ultan Dillane, but Henderson’s show of form is heartening ahead of the Six Nations.
“It was a goal of mine to come back early,” said Henderson post-match at Welford Road. “I genuinely didn’t have a clue that I was coming back and that I would be allowed to play until Tuesday afternoon.
“I trained fully on Tuesday before I went to see the surgeon – whether or not I should have [trained] is another thing!
“I said to him, ‘Look, I’m training fully, have good movement in it, strength in it,’ and thankfully the surgeon cleared me. He was happy for me to train the rest of the week and give it a rattle, and I’ve had no problems with it.”
Henderson with Ireland team-mate Jacob Stockdale. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
There was some concern to see Henderson being treated during the win at Welford Road, as the Ulster medical team focused on is hand, but that was a separate issue.
“Ah, this is a finger injury that’s kind of been at me from Argentina at the  World Cup,” said Henderson as he looked down at the bandaged fingers on his right hand.
“Just something that happens every now and again and just one of those things. Everyone has got wee niggles in rugby that they just have to manage and get on with. It’ll be flared up for another four or five days I’d say after that, then hopefully it will settle down.”
Having been out of action for a month, it remains to be seen if Schmidt opts to make Henderson available to Ulster for Friday’s Pro14 clash with Benetton, allowing the lock to build further match fitness.
Schmidt will bring a group of players to Portugal today, with a training camp at Quinta do Lago until Friday, and Henderson said on Saturday that he wasn’t certain if he would be heading abroad or not.
“The guys who are going to Portugal, we’re not 100% sure yet,” said Henderson. “Joe likes to play his cards close to his chest, not just with youse in the media but with ourselves as well.
“I’m ready for whatever Joe wants me to do. If he decides that I need some game time, I’m happy to go out and play at Kingspan next week. If he wants me to put my feet up for a week then, of course, I’ll do that too!”
Henderson took pride from Ulster’s achievement on Saturday as they secured their first European quarter-final since 2014 and underlined the impact Dan McFarland has made, “adding direction” for young players, as well motivating older players.
Source: Gary Carr/INPHO
Ulster now have that knock-out tie against Leinster to anticipate at the end of March but even before that, Henderson is happy to be able to go into Ireland camp with his province still in contention in Europe.
“It’s good to be able to go down there and I’m sure the other players will say, ‘Well done, it’s great to see you beating the other big teams.’ It’s good to have people saying that to you and it’s good to be part of a successful group.
“With Ireland, you feel like Ireland are going to do well so being able to go somewhere with players who are doing well, having done well ourselves, is a really good feeling.
“Equally, a lot of the players who haven’t been involved in recent weeks with Ulster have been told that the onus is on them to step up and perform. We have been doing unbelievably well in training.
“Guys like Adam McBurney, John Andrew, Johnny Stewart and Johnny McPhillips – it’s players like that who prepare us for games like this and like last week [against Racing 92] and those guys probably don’t get as much credit as they are due.
“They are all chomping at the bit to see who will play against Treviso next week when Rory Best and John Cooney are away or whoever else.”
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