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One pro team's huge turnover: just two players are at Ulster longer than 27-year-old Iain Henderson

By Liam Heagney
Ulster captain Iain Henderson. (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)

Iain Henderson is a 27-year-old with plenty of mileage still to go in rugby career, another ten years if he reaches the same veteran age that his club and country colleague Rory Best has just retired at. 


However, a quick glance around the Ulster changing room is enough of a warning for him to never take for granted what might happen in the rugby life. 

It was April 2012, shortly before the Irish province went on to qualify for only its second-ever European Cup final, when he made his debut, a six-minute cameo as a 20-year-old against Connacht. 

That may only be seven and a half years ago but such is the rate of attrition within the inner Ulster sanctum, he is aware that only two of the current 44-strong first-team squad has been at the club longer, Luke Marshall, a debut-maker in October 2010, and Craig Gilroy, who got his first look in a month later. 

“From when I started at Ulster there might only be two or three guys still in the organisation, so it has massively changed from when I started,” said Henderson to RugbyPass.  

(Continue reading below…)

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“Players come and go and it is about the players that are coming adapting to the surroundings and then progressing, being able to progress in a team environment and provide on the pitch, that is what the key question is,” he reckoned, taking the wholesale turnover – and the latest departure of Best – in his stride.

“We have had big names, big personalities leave us over the last number of seasons and the guys are adaptable. They move on and there will be someone else who will step into his [Best’s] position and fill that very well.”


As a 2017 British and Irish Lion who is just back in Belfast following duty for Ireland at the World Cup in Japan, what to do when rugby will no longer be his job isn’t something Henderson has spent much time dwelling on. Still, it’s not as if there has never been a fleeting thought regarding what comes next.

“It is in the back of your mind what is happening from what other people are doing and how they are getting on, struggling and not struggling. It is something you have to always keep in the back of your mind and try and be as prepared about it as possible.  

“I have got studies and a few outside ideas, but nothing I hopefully need to use in the immediate future,” he admitted before mentioning some old Ulster pals whose endeavours have caught his attention. 

I have been very impressed with Tommy (Bowe). That [TV presenting] would never be for me but I have been very impressed with how he has slipped into that role. Andrew Trimble is doing well developing a sports app at the minute and going down that route. 


“There are a few more from a good few years back, like Lewis Stevenson, for example, is currently training to be a doctor. Everyone goes in different routes and everyone decides on different plans.”

Forefront in Henderson’s current plan is guiding Ulster back to the knockout stages of the Heineken Champions Cup. They reached last season’s quarter-finals for the first time since 2014 and they are keen to build on that progress, especially as many observers believe they were unfortunate to lose in Dublin to eventual finalists Leinster.

A trip to Bath next Saturday gets the ball rolling this term, with Clermont and Harlequins waiting in the wings for a young squad remoulded these past 15 months by Dan McFarland, the coach who has got Ulster back up and running after hitting the buffers under Les Kiss.  

“It’s a frustrating loss for us,” said Henderson, reflecting on their last-eight exit after emerging from a winter pool featuring Racing, Scarlets and Leicester.

“However, for a lot of that squad they were either new into that squad or that was one of their first experiences of knockout rugby. That is something they hopefully relished and that experience will drive them on to want to get more. From the outside looking in at pre-season, it looks like it has been doing that.

“It has been good to get back home. It was a long time away and a long preparation before the World Cup, so it was good to get back into the swing of things, get back in with the guys at the Kingspan and knuckle down. 

“The squad definitely have that ability there. It’s harnessing it and making it come out at the right time. As the last few months (in Japan) have shown us, cup rugby is about peaking at the right time and performing on-demand, so that is something that we have got to work on.

“Talking about putting the Ulster back into Ulster is kind of like trying to look back and trying to be something that the players aren’t at the minute. The players at the minute, they are looking at creating something special for themselves, creating a new and valid identity for what they can stand for. Doing that they are working so hard. 

“The amount of effort that is going into it is phenomenal so if the guys get their just dividends, we will kick on this season from what we have done last season… they are very deserving of receiving some sort of justification for the effort that goes in because the effort, the true and honest effort that goes in, is incredible throughout the squad.”


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??… next stop ??

A post shared by Iain Henderson (@hendy_102) on

Henderson was the obvious candidate to step-up and replace Best as skipper, but he wasn’t so certain himself of getting that upgrade. “I wasn’t sure I was going to be captain,” he admitted. “Our squad, there is a good number of leaders in it.

“Marcell (Coetzee) is a massive leader for us. Will Addison has captained teams before. Rob Herring has captained Ulster before. He was club captain two or three years ago. I don’t think it would have been fair to assume that I was captain, I don’t think that was correct. 

“There were many other options and that is probably something that when I have captained the team, it has made it easier because the team has a lot of leaders in it and they make it easy to lead the team.

“Rory will tell you himself the changes implemented last season were all positive and it is an opportunity to build on what was put in place last season and progress that, adapt to how the game is changing and move forward.”

Henderson was an Ireland starter in the recent World Cup defeats to hosts Japan in the pool and New Zealand in the quarter-finals. The way that experience disappointingly panned out has him ready to launch into the club seasonm, not sulk and feel sorry for himself.

“There’s probably a little bit of frustration. It’s about channelling the negativity of what happened us over the last couple of months in the right way to ensure we can use that, not as a negative but as a positive to benefit the club and hopefully get results. 


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Enjoyable first 2 weeks in Japan … only just getting started ??

A post shared by Iain Henderson (@hendy_102) on

“A lot of it is emotional and mentally preparing yourself for what you are going to do. It is very difficult to put down into words or quantify how that happens. 

“But coming back, there is a willingness to want to get involved, a willingness to want to get back in with your team and integrate back in as successfully as possible and as willingly as possible to be part of the team, to enjoy it, to get yourself involved in team activities because you can be very taken back and say ‘oh, I don’t feel like I want to play for another four weeks’ and distance yourself. 

“The desire to get back in among everyone is something that is massive in rugby and the teams who win things are generally the teams who are close as a unit and that will stand to us this year hopefully.”

WATCH: Iain Henderson was among the line-up of star players at this season’s Champions Cup launch in Cardiff  

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