‘Odds stacked against Connacht again but that’s how we like it’ – Sean Henry

TheJournal.ie

The village of Curry in Sligo is not renowned for producing a procession of rugby stars but its most famous son is doing his best to put it on the map.

Connacht hooker Sean Henry rejoined his home province during the summer and, having watched famous Heineken Cup wins over Harlequins and Biarritz, took part part in their greatest ever victory. Henry started at Stade Ernest-Wallon as Connacht toppled four-time Heineken Cup champions Toulouse.

Henry will be hoping to get the starting nod from coach Pat Lam today ahead of an extremely tough task against Saracens on Saturday. He told TheScore.ie about learning from Jerry Flannery, his homecoming, Connacht’s mid-season turnaround and toppling Sarries.

“Curry is near the Mayo border and rugby is non-existent,” he said. “I played some rugby in secondary school, in Tubbercurry, and was spotted by a development officer from Sligo Rugby Club, who asked me to play for them.” Henry advanced to the Connacht Academy where, as a tight-head prop, he played for the U19 and U20 teams.

Henry attended college in Limerick and kept up his rugby with U.L Bohemians. A call-up to the Munster squad followed and, over the course of three seasons, he made seven appearances off the bench. “It was great to train and play alongside guys like John Hayes, and see how professional they were and they went about their business,” said Henry.

While Henry was tempted back to Connacht — partly due to the fact that former U20 coach Dan McFarland was with the senior set-up — many of his former U.L Bohs teammates are making strides with Munster. “It’s great to see lads like Tommy O’Donnell, JJ Hanrahan, Dave Foley and Cathal Sheridan doing so well,” he said. “Cathal is one of my best friends. I’ve known him from Sligo since we were 14 or 15. It’s really cool to see him kicking on and getting the chance as I know all about the hard work he puts into his game.

“The underlying talent is there but the mindset of the provinces has changed and now young lads are getting their chance. With regular game time, it just goes to show you what can be done.”

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Cathal Sheridan calls the shots against Perpignan in December. INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Henry finds himself dicing with Jason Harris-Wright for the starting hooker role yet nine of his 13 appearances this season have been in the first XV. The competition between himself and the former Leinster man, he says, brings out the best in them both. Another outing at Allianz Park on Saturday will see him double the amount of appearances he made during his three years at Munster. Fitness and form is playing a big part in his emergence as a regular.

He commented, “I’m happy with how the season is going. Being fit and staying out there on the pitch has helped massively. I throw my body around a good bit when I’m out there so staying fit is often a challenge.”

Henry’s lineout darts have become comforting in their consistency. He has an uncomplicated throw and pays credit to jumpers Craig Clarke, Mick Kearney and Andrew Browne on having throw completions in the low 90% range. A pre-rehearsed, short throw to George Naoupu led to a try against Zebre [in the Heineken Cup] earlier in the season but Henry is just as happy finding his jumpers.

Henry said, “I put a lot of work and a huge amount of time into my throwing. As a hooker, you have to look after your set-piece first. I was lucky that Jerry Flannery was still playing when I was at Munster and I got to practice with him. I got to see his mental approach to it and the drills he put himself through. For me, Jerry’s style was the template and I was trying to emulate him.”

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Jerry Flannery in action for Ireland at the Rugby World Cup. INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Ireland currently has a wealth of talent to step into that No.2 jersey. Rory Best, Richardt Strauss, Sean Cronin and Damien Varley have evolved the position, in Ireland, to that of the roving loose forward and Henry agrees that hooker’s should be seeking out breakdown work once looking after their primary duties.

His lineout throwing was impeccable during the 16-14 victory over Toulouse and he chipped in with five big tackles as the French side were stunned at home. “It was a massive boost for the whole squad,” he said.

We had a really tough review session after that [43-10] Edinburgh defeat. It was not just about the game but our attitudes, behavioural, mental preparation and about how we trained. We didn’t hold back. What emerged from that was that we knew we had to be mentally stronger.”

Although it came without a bonus point, victory over Zebre last weekend gives connacht an outside chance of reaching the Heineken Cup quarter finals for the first time. “Over 80 minutes, last time we faced them, we really should have beaten Saracens,” Henry declared. “I remember coming off the pitch, really frustrated. People were saying ‘It’s Saracens’ but we had more than enough chances to win that game.

“We’re going into the back-yard of a side that has all the stars, all the resources. When the odds seem to be stacked against and no-one is giving you a chance, those are the games that get you fired up. We won’t be going there fearing them.”

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