Form V pupil, and rising swimming superstar, Conor Ferguson and former pupil, and Ulster and Ireland rugby player, Iain Henderson were two of the major winners at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards, held on Monday 25th January. At a star-studded evening at the Ramada Plaza Hotel, Conor scooped the Young Player of the Year award, with Iain picking up the George Best Breakthrough Award. Making it a hat-trick of Academy pupils at the ceremony was up-and-coming golfing star, Tom McKibbin (Form II), also nominated in Young Player of the Year category.
For Conor, it wasn’t the only victory the 16-year-old was involved in because Northern Ireland’s successful Commonwealth Youth Games team – he was an influential member in the squad in Samoa – walked away with the Young Team of the Year award. Ferguson was in supreme form in 2015 – one of many highlights was winning the 100m backstroke gold at the Commonwealth Youth Games. He is now rated as the third fastest backstroker in the world in his age-group, which given the intense competition in the sport, is incredible.
Iain Henderson’s presentation of the George Best Breakthrough Award was the culmination of a remarkable couple of years for the Ulster forward. The Belfast Telegraph itself probably put it best:
“If we didn’t know already, we do now… Ulster and Ireland star Iain Henderson is set for the brightest of futures.
That’s what normally lies ahead of whoever lifts the George Best Breakthrough Award, as Henderson did at the 2015 Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards last night.
Previous winners of the coveted prize include Steven Davis, Rory McIlroy and Michael Conlan. Since picking up the Breakthrough Award as young men, they haven’t done too badly, have they?
Davis is now the Northern Ireland captain leading the country to the Euro 2016 finals, McIlroy is a four-time golf Major winner and Conlan is a World Amateur boxing champion.
Henderson has the ability to be the best on the planet too.
While those in Ulster and Ireland were well aware of Henderson long before 2015, last year saw the young forward announce himself on the world arena. It was his big breakthrough year on the global stage.
The World Cup may have ended disappointingly for Joe Schmidt’s side but it was an unqualified success for the young Ulster forward who was one of Ireland’s most eye-catching performers.
Having won 12 caps before the 2015 Six Nations, Henderson established himself as an integral part of the national squad during the championship with five appearances off the bench to earn a second winners’ medal in as many seasons.
The 23-year-old didn’t find himself among the replacements again for some time.
His performances for Ulster at the tail end of last season turned him from a World Cup squad certainty into a potential starter.
Defeat to Glasgow in the PRO12 semi-final ended the campaign on a sour note but the Ulster academy graduate carried his personal form into World Cup preparation.
A first international try against Wales in the Aviva warm-up game further pressed his case for a starting spot come the tournament opener and, indeed, when the Canada game arrived it was his name pencilled in beside the iconic figure of Paul O’Connell in Ireland’s engine room.
The soon to be departed captain welcomed Henderson’s ascension to the No.4 jersey.
“He doesn’t need any looking after; you can’t coach what he has,” said the legendary lock.
Far from being overawed, Henderson was right at home on the big stage, earning man of the match honours against Canada in a performance highlighted by another try.
Against the Italians two weeks later, he was arguably even better.
It was a performance that had the greatest Lion of them all, Willie John McBride, stating that the way Henderson was playing, he’d fully expect to see him on the tour to New Zealand next summer.
It was fitting that Willie John was on stage along with Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards to announce Henderson as the George Best Breakthrough Award winner.
In the press conferences building up to the pool decider against France and the quarter-final defeat to Argentina, Ireland’s players and coaches were frequently fielding questions from curious foreign journalists asking just where the man who only five years before was playing in a Schools’ Cup final had come from.
Despite his heroics, Henderson could do nothing to stop his side suffering last-eight heartache at the hands of the Pumas.
He said: “Looking back on the World Cup now there were the highs of the France game and the lows of Argentina. Some of the boys said that the noise in the Millennium Stadium that day we played France was the loudest they’d ever heard so it was great to be a part of that.
“Argentina was just a soul-destroyer. You let it get to you for a while afterwards but you have to drive on.”
His efforts to do so have been hampered by injury, firstly a finger problem suffered against Argentina.
The surgery kept him out until the winter but upon his return he was struck down with a hamstring tear.
His loss will be felt by both Ulster and Ireland over the coming months but in the years to come, given his qualities, Henderson’s star will continue to rise.”