Sean O’Brien has praised Iain Henderson saying that Ireland play well when the Ulster lock plays well.
The former Leinster flanker has played with Henderson plenty of times for Ireland and toured with the Ulsterman in 2017 with the British and Irish Lions.
Henderson’s lock partner with Ireland, James Ryan, tends to get the most plaudits out of Ireland’s second-rowers, but O’Brien believes he is of the utmost importance to the national team.
“With his athleticism, physicality and strength, he has a lot of strings to his bow as a rugby player. We just need to see it on the big occasions all the time,” O’Brien told the Belfast Telegraph.
“He’s the closest player Ireland have, in my eyes, to Maro Itoje, in being physical, fast and getting you over the gain line. Hendy is also able to move his feet really late at the line and that gets us out of an awful lot of trouble.
“That’s why, when he’s on it, Hendy is so hard to handle. But he needs to be on his game all the time because in the last year or two, if he plays well, Ireland usually play well. I don’t know if he realises that.”
The London Irish flanker has clearly been a fan of the Ulster captain for a while, singling out his performance for the Lions against the Hurricanes in 2017 as proof of how devastating he can be.
“Hendy was on fire that night. It was one of the stand-out individual performances, bar the yellow card, of the tour. He was manhandling people, and the Hurricanes were a very tough side,” O’Brien commented.
“He wanted to prove a point. He wanted to have a real crack at getting into the Test 23, so he had a lot to play for.
“That yellow card didn’t help him, but sitting in the stand that night I thought, ‘This is the real Hendy’. This is how good he can be. This is the freak of a player that we know he is. He was awesome that night.”
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Henderson isn’t the only Ulsterman that O’Brien has a high opinion of, lavishing Jacob Stockdale with praise while acknowledging that he can still improve in certain areas.
“I don’t think Jacob [Stockdale] is the finished article yet by a long shot, but if he gets his defensive stuff sorted, he could be one of the best wingers Ireland has ever produced,” O’Brien explained.
“He has a bit to do, but if he can get that right he’ll be phenomenal.”