In his previous guise as Leinster coach, Joe Schmidt would often struggle to maintain his outgoing nature as he debated the merits of Ulster’s back-row.
Twice last season Schmidt was livid at Ulster for slowing down his team at the breakdown and seriously impinging on his gameplan. Mark Anscombe’s men have a habit of wholeheartedly committing Rory Best to rucks but the chief source of ire for Schmidt was Chris Henry. When Schmidt would talk about referees needing to look hard at the crimes he perceived Ulster to be committing, Henry was never far from his thoughts.
The Ulster flanker told TheScore.ie, “If the opposition coach is saying you’re causing trouble, that’s where you want to be. If I get on that’s what I’ll try to bring to the game. If I get an opportunity, that’s what I’ll be doing this weekend.”
Having focused on openside as his main position, at the beginning of last season, Henry has been in excellent form. His work at the breakdown is superb; supplying quick ball for Ulster while pouring treacle on opposition attempts to get their team moving. Form was rewarded last season as Declan Kidney selected him for starts against South Africa and Argentina.
Henry plays the role of breakdown protector against South Africa. INPHO/James Crombie
Sean O’Brien’s return to fitness saw him relegated to the bench for the Six Nations but, with Kidney moving on, was a key figure on the summer tour to North America. O’Brien’s ankle worries may see Henry go from Schmidt’s nightmare niggle to the Kiwi’s problem solver against Samoa.
Henry said, “Joe obviously puts a big aspect on the ruck and, more so, about ourselves. At the moment its about those first two players at the breakdown; doing a job and doing it well — making sure the ball is sitting there on a plate.
For me, he hasn’t really mentioned much about being destructive but, as a back-row player, that’s your job. That’s what you’re supposed to be doing.”
Ireland’s training ground focus last week, says Henry, was on righting their own ship and becoming accustomed with Schmidt’s demands. With seventh-ranked Samoa now in town and eyeing an Irish scalp, the 29-year-old reveals that the squad’s focus has shifted.
“The small bit of defence we have done so far has been about their offloading game; their continuity,” said Henry. “Once they get the ball, its about us trying to connect [tackle] as quick as possible. We want to keep the ball but there are going to be turnovers and whenever that happens we’ve got to respond very quickly. They’ve got some serious ball carriers in their team and they always want to keep the ball alive. We’ve got to focus on that ball and stop the offloads.”
Samoa’s participation in a quadrangular tournament with South Africa, Italy and Scotland, during the summer, has sharpened their squad. The starting XV will contain many of the players that won two of their three summer Tests [they lost to the Springboks] and beat Wales at the Millennium Stadium last November. Samoa’s brawn and eagerness to commit bodies to win turnover ball, Henry feels, are their main strengths.
“When you look at the videos of the games they’ve won — the Italians and the Welsh, the Scottish — their physicality is right up there,” he said.
“Any Test match is going to be an intense, physical battle but this week even more so. Everyone is expecting it. If you don’t pass the ball well and don’t put it where it should be, you’re going to feel it. We know its coming but it is up to us to be able to meet that challenge and, hopefully, bring our own physicality to the match as well.”