Having slotted into the role vacated by the injured Sean O’Brien, Ulster flanker Chris Henry is enjoying what he believes to be the best rugby of his career.
Chris Henry travelled to France previously as a standby player with Ireland, but he has been a regular Test starter this season and is looking forward to next Saturday’s showdown in Paris where Ireland have only beaten les Bleus once in 42 years.
With four successive Six Nations starts behind him, Henry said of the final round clash: “It’s huge, I have travelled to Paris as a 25th man before, but never got to play.
“The atmosphere is intimidating. It is going to be a really hard game. Obviously playing away from home in Twickenham, we showed there we missed a few opportunities we didn’t take and the game just got away from us.
“When you are playing the best teams, it is that one chance, that one opportunity that you create and you don’t take.”
Henry has been a vital cog up front for Ireland these past few weeks, with the openside flanker playing in all bar 12 minutes of their Six Nations campaign to date.
“(The game against Italy) was special. Everyone in the changing room felt honoured and lucky to play in it,” admitted the 29-year-old.
“But for us, we owe it to him (Brian O’Driscoll), we owe it to ourselves to go over to Paris and give ourselves the best shout. Everyone is confident, if we show up and play the way we can, there is no reason why we can’t win this for him.”
The Ulster back rower was replaced by Joe Schmidt in the closing stages of the 46-7 victory over the Azzurri, having put in another big shift at the breakdown and tackle area.
For Henry, it is clear he is enjoying playing in the back row alongside Jamie Heaslip and Peter O’Mahony, who missed the round 4 fixture, making 12 tackles against the Italians.
“Because I have got a run of games, yes, without a doubt I’m feeling very comfortable in that place. There is more to come from me.
“There’s a few things in my own game that I wasn’t happy with. But, you always assess the games and improve.
“When you are playing around big players, it brings out the best in you as well. Hopefully if I can play again next week, it will be my best game yet.”
The quality of back rowers is clear with Ireland looking unfazed by the loss of Sean O’Brien and O’Mahony, and Schmidt blooding the likes of Jordi Murphy in this year’s Six Nations.
Iain Henderson was the latest to get the nod in O’Mahony’s injury-enforced absence and Henry is confident that his young Ulster team-mate can excel in whichever position Schmidt finds for him.
“Iain hasn’t played too much rugby of late. When you don’t get a run of games, sometimes it can be hard. He’s still trying to find out his position.
“He’s been thrown around second row and back row. It is very difficult for him, but playing with him he is a wrecking ball. When he goes forward, he is very dynamic, in defence…in the way he can counter-ruck.
“He is such a young guy (at just 22). He’s a massive threat when you are playing against him and I love playing with him. It was great for him to get his first (Six Nations) start, first of many I’m sure.
When you look at the back row, Pete is obviously injured, you have got Seanie (O’Brien) out, Stephen Ferris out, Jordi (Murphy) and Rhys (Ruddock) coming on making huge differences.
“It is certainly an area that has always been competitive and there is no shortfall of back rows.”
Henry stated that during the Irish squad’s training camp in Belfast as they prepared for Italy, they took a sneak peak at France.
Now that the Italians have been put to the sword, he admitted the forward battle with the Azzurri will stand to them against what is another monster pack in France.
Italy scored their only try through winger Leonardo Sarto from a loose ball near halfway, and Henry knows Ireland cannot afford to give the French any opportunities to attack from turnovers.
“Because we attacked so positively and wanted to run from everywhere, there were always going to be turnovers from us,” he conceded.
“That is something next week we just can’t do. We can’t lose the ball just as much. But when you are trying to run the ball as much, trying to be so positive, mistakes are going to happen.
“France have a big pack. Today was probably a good warm-up for them. They are a big pack, a heavy pack.
“Every time you are away from home your set piece is huge, your scrum, lineout, getting your maul going, and next week it’s going to be a huge factor in the outcome of the game.”
An injury bulletin issued by the Ireland management yesterday confirmed: “Cian Healy took a knock to his ankle scoring his try. In an effort to expedite his recovery and limit swelling, he was put in a boot overnight and is already recovering well.
“Jonathan Sexton came through the game well, his thumb injury was not a problem
“A number of players reported bumps and bruises following a very physical encounter with Italy, but none are considered injury concerns.”