The 2019 Rugby World Cup will be held in Asia, outside the traditional heartland of rugby union. This September, the world’s best 21 teams will fly to Japan to defend their colors and become the trophy-winning nation. Amongst this year’s teams is Ireland, and amongst its delegation, Ulster Rugby captain Iain Henderson. The rugby star shared with us his experience as an international rugby player and his insights on the World Cup team and individual preparation.
… PLAYING FOR A NATIONAL TEAM
What are the main differences between playing in a club (Ulster) and Ireland (national team)?
" When you're playing for Ulster, everyone trains together all the time, throughout the whole year which brings a close atmosphere to the team. One of the challenges you have, playing with Ireland, is that you have to become as tight as you are when playing with your club team but over a very short space of time. Being able to bring everyone together in a short amount of time to be able to perform is definitely one of the main challenges in international rugby. "
" Obviously, one of the other challenges is that you're playing higher calibre international teams so your preparation has to be spot-on. We’ll need to make sure that all our set plays are perfectly executed, and that we understand our opposition strengths and weaknesses as best as we can. Obviously, when playing with Ulster we still strive to have the same amount of detail in there but it’s not always possible because of the high number of teams."
Do you see your national teammates throughout the season? What do you guys do to work well together even though you don't see each other often?
" Throughout the season, we play against lads who we then would have to become very close with for the World Cup. This can sometimes be difficult but at the same time, it gives us a common ground and enables us to get to know each other a lot quicker. Coaches and senior players also drive and facilitate squad cohesion with team building events, going out for dinner together and other social activities."
Do you communicate with Joe Schmidt throughout the season? How does he provide you with feedback on your club performances when you’re not in camp? Is he in contact with Dan McFarland?
" Joe stays in touch with the players throughout the season. With us being in and out of camps every 4/6 weeks, he keeps a very close eye on us, following our performances and tracking our injuries. He is also in contact with all four provincial coaches (Ulster, Leinster, Munster, and Connacht), getting insights on how we are performing in training and game days."
… PREPARING FOR THE WORLD CUP
How is the preparation for the world cup organized overall? How early do team sessions start and where?
“ Camp is in Dublin and it started at the end of June, about 3 months before the World Cup starts. Sessions vary from day-to-day, with some more concentrated on conditioning and others on skills or recovery. The coaching staff has everything mapped out to make sure we get the best preparation in the short amount of time that we have and that we come into the World Cup in the optimal shape to perform.”
What does the coaching staff consist of? Skills coach, S&C team, physios…
" There are slightly more resources at Ireland than Ulster: 5 rugby coaches, 3 strength & conditioning coaches, 2 physios, 3 masseurs, a doctor, and a nutritionist. They are always at the camp with us, making sure we get the best possible care and ensuring everything runs very smoothly. Time is definitely of the essence down there."
Do you personally have a different approach to preparation for regular season than for the World Cup?
" I'd like to say no, but I think with the World Cup there is definitely a pinnacle in terms of rugby achievements and performance. I have been putting extra effort into this pre-season to try and get myself in the best possible shape before leaving for Japan."
Have you ever been to Japan before?
“ I have never been to Japan, but I know rugby is definitely growing as a sport over there. Many professional teams have surfaced over the past 10 years that we wouldn’t have heard of before then.”
What do you do in terms of injury prevention? Quarry sessions? How individual are they? How do you keep track of ‘quarry’ programmes?
" The goal of our Quarry sessions is to work on robustness to keep injuries abated and ensure we don't re-injure ourselves unnecessarily. Staying on top on that side of things is crucial: we had a lot of injuries early on during the last World Cup, so minimizing this risk is in turn going to maximize the overall chances of any squad going into the tournament. "
Do you find a difference in intensity when training with Ireland? Who dictates the intensity? S&C coaches or Joe Schmidt?
“ When I first started playing for Ireland, the training intensity was much higher than at Ulster, both on the training pitch and in terms of strength and conditioning. Now, with club rugby becoming much more professional, it’s been taking massive steps towards the intensity found in international training in the past 2 seasons with the objective of performing at the highest level.”
Being a captain for Ulster, do you find that the leadership skills you have acquired will be useful in the World Cup? How so? What type of leader would you like to be? Tell us about influences in leadership like Rory Best, Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony, etc.
" I haven't started my tenure as a captain yet but what I found is that there are a lot of leaders in a team, not just the captain. This makes the job a whole lot easier and in that aspect, any player can come into the Ireland squad and brings his leadership skills to benefit the whole team effort. Rory passes on leadership to players in the squad, and while Johnny and Peter have very different styles we can always learn from them. Ultimately, I think it's good to have your own approach to leadership, taking on pieces of advice and information along the way."
How will the unique challenges of Scotland and Japan differ?
" Each province in Ireland plays a Scottish team at least 5 times every season, so we know them very well and vice-versa. All players have their recurring habits on the pitch and the more you play against them, the more you get to know these habits and the more likely you are to anticipate their plays and beat them. Playing against a team like Japan which we don't know will be different, but at the same time they don't know us either so that makes it even more interesting!"
What would be an acceptable achievement for Ireland? Semifinals?
“ Ireland has never made it to the semifinals before so it making it there or beyond would be a great finish for us. However, our main goal will be to come out of every game knowing that we have done everything we could to deliver our best possible performance. with the results we've had as a nation over the last few years, who knows what will happen… setting a new record would be great though and I can only imagine the hype back home if we got there!”
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