Rob Henderson - the laughing Lion
April 22, 2013
Ireland international Rob Henderson was an ever-present in a thrilling series against Australia in 2001 © PA Photos
'I had one shot at it and gave it my all'
Rob Henderson on...
There is nothing like a British & Irish Lions tour to focus the mind of a professional rugby player. The chance to join an elite band of players - the best of the best - is an unrivalled motivational tool that is more powerful than any coach or chequebook - just ask former Ireland international Rob Henderson.
A joker of some repute with a penchant for pizza, cigarettes and beer, Henderson had the last laugh by raising his game to silence his doubters and play a key role for the Lions in what proved to be a thrilling series against Australia in 2001.
"It doesn't fall on your lap or come by luck," Henderson told ESPN. "You have to work extremely hard, and that particular year I worked harder than I have ever done in my life and I thought I deserved my place."
His industry, fuelled equally by the disappointment of missing out on the 1999 Rugby World Cup, reaped rich dividends with the call every player dreams of eventually came from tour manager Donal Lenihan. "I just remember a sense of euphoria that all the hard work had paid off and that there was a chance to represent an institution which is not only world famous but synonymous with northern hemisphere rugby."
The Lions hoped a team-bonding session at Tylney Hall would lay the foundation for a series victory but Henderson was not convinced. "I was never that good at maracas," he said in reference to one of the musical tasks given to them. "You never really get to know a fella until you have trained with him, played with him and socialised with him - that is when all the barriers come down."
One of those he met was assistant coach Steve Black who made an immediate impression and, according to Henderson, would arguably play a greater role than anyone else on tour as the squad threatened to fall apart as the result of some very-public outbursts by disgruntled players Matt Dawson and Austin Healey. "What he does I'm not so sure, but he is a perfectionist," said Henderson. "He is an absolute gentleman and was the glue that held the players and the management together on that tour."
That resentment centred on coach Graham Henry's treatment of the players and a Test team selection thought to have been decided before they had even touched down in Australia. As one of the beneficiaries of that policy, Henderson is understandably less critical of the Kiwi. "When you have a squad of players together, you are always going to be told that there is no name set in stone but you have an idea before you go out there what their preferred line up would be. There's a bit of jousting beforehand and the pawns are moved around but most teams have an idea. Not everyone can play.
"Personally, I went out there thinking that I was as good as the other guys - maybe not in everyone's mind but in my mind. I was fit and there on form. I played three warm up games and scored four tries. People may question whether I was the first name on the sheet when the original squad was announced no, would I have been the first or second name on the sheet when the Test teams were drawn up - I would have thought yes."
The first name on that team sheet may well have been his countryman Brian O'Driscoll - no mean feat considering the wealth of talent at Henry's disposal in the form of captain Martin Johnson - "he led with pride, dignity and from the front" - Jonny Wilkinson, Jason Robinson and Keith Wood. Henderson had a front row seat for O'Driscoll's rise to greatness - playing alongside him the day he announced himself on the world stage with a hat-trick against France in 2000 and throughout the three-Test series with the Wallabies. "I'd try and smash people up as much as I could and then give the ball to Drico and he would run around them," said Henderson.
"He was an exciting talent when he burst onto the scene. He was carefree, it didn't matter who he was paying against - he was just going to play his own game. He was and has been a joy to play alongside, a pain to play against and is still doing it now at the age of 33 - and long may that continue."
O'Driscoll produced arguably the most memorable moment of the tour in the Lions' first Test victory in Brisbane but that try formed just part of a spectacular day according to Henderson. "I remember the crowd singing an array of different songs and the intensity. I think I made 20-odd tackles and I remember us having this attitude that we were going to roll them over which is just what we did. It was just one of those days that the planets aligned and had we taken all of our chances we would have won by a lot more."
However, the victory came at a price. "A lot of people were running around on vinegar and brown paper," said Henderson but he believes it was a tactical decision rather than the physical toll of the long season to that point that saw the series swing the Wallabies' way.
"One guy who got into the first Test team was Martin Corry," he said of the Tigers forward who was not part of the original squad. "And I think he was desperately unlucky to get dropped for the second Test. They moved Hilly [Richard Hill] to No.6 and put Backy [Neil Back] at No.7 and left SQ [Scott Quinnell] at No.8, and I don't know whether anybody else has mentioned it but I think it was a big turning point in the series as a whole.
Rob Henderson embraces Ireland and Lions team-mate Brian O'Driscoll © Getty Images
"The balance of the team changed, I think Hilly was on fire at No.7. He was up in the faces off all the Australians and would scare a police horse. When he hit and stuck he would drive them back and deny them any gainline momentum. Don't get me wrong, Backy is a fantastic rugby player but he is more of a ground hog, soak tackle and then try and get up and get the ball, but they were one or two further yards over the gain line than they would have been had Hilly stayed there. Changing that around I think was a massive call."
The second Test in Melbourne was equally thrilling with the Lions taking a half-time lead. "Had we got one more kick before the break that game may have been over," rued Henderson, all too aware that a costly interception in the opening moments of the second half sparked the Wallabies into life. "They thoroughly deserved their victory in the end although we were pretty shell-shocked having led the game."
Despite a growing list if injury concerns - "we were held together by twine, hope, fresh air and god's blessing" - Henderson insists the Lions remained confident they could get the job done. But off-field issues would surface once again with Austin Healey's verbal grenade aimed at Wallabies lock Justin Harrison appearing to serve as a perfect team talk with the latter producing a stunning performance on what was his Test debut to help clinch the series. But Henderson does not hold Healey responsible.
"Let's say for arguments sake that Austin hadn't said anything," he said, "there would have been something else we would be talking about now. You know the way the media works, it's not necessarily sensationalism but you need an edge, a story, something to write about."
Henderson views the series as one that got away. "It is bitter-sweet," he said when asked for his over-riding memory. "It was fantastic to be in the squad, play and score tries and a dream to be capped for the Lions but gut-wrenching to lose a series we could have easily won.
"To be part of that series was great, to have won it would of course been better, I am not going to be one of those to say it was great just to be involved. It was extremely disappointing that we didn't win the series, fingers crossed the lads can finish it off this year."
But Henderson takes comfort from the fact that he has worn the famous red jersey. "I was one of them," he concluded proudly. "It is an unbelievably special thing and something that will never be taken away from me."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.