Interview ‘I guess I am not your standard English fly-half ’
Zack Henry is ready to show Leicester the skills that brought him success after a disastrous start to his career in France
On numerous occasions over his first couple of days at Leicester Tigers, Zack Henry was asked whether his surname was pronounced like that of Thierry, Arsenal’s record goalscorer.
The 25-year-old came from Nevers, a second-tier club on the Loire river, having played all his professional career in France before moving to the East Midlands.
He did not take offence at the assumptions, but Sussex-born Henry – one of the summer’s most intriguing Premiership signings – actually epitomises how talented self-starters can flourish despite being cast off by the English system.
“Between 13 and 17 I was with Harlequins and then got dropped because I was too small,” explains Henry, who attended Warden Park School in Cuckfield before winning a scholarship to fee-paying Hurstpierpoint College.
“It was classic – I was just a late developer. You can’t be expected to weigh 90kg [14st 2lb] and have loads of muscle at 17. By the time I was 18 or 19, I was physically fine.”
At Bath University, under the coaching of Aaron James, Henry switched from scrum-half to flyhalf – and thrived. During three years in the West Country, he realised he could take rugby further. The decision to expand his horizons proved a defining one.
“There’s rugby and then there’s living life,” Henry adds. “I didn’t want to go to somewhere like Cornish Pirates as a fourth-choice fly-half on four grand a year. It was baffling for a lot of my team-mates and my family that I’d go to France but, for me, it just seemed right.”
James spoke to Richard Hill, the former England scrum-half and coach of Rouen, and Henry was recruited for the 2016-17 season.
He had a bumpy beginning when his bag was stolen from a gym. It contained the keys to his car, which was promptly taken as well.
“After that, we had an away match in Oloron,” Henry continues. “I stupidly didn’t wear a gumshield and got my front four teeth knocked out and broke my jaw after smashing heads with someone. I needed three operations.”
Hill, a huge fan, says Henry was a
“revelation” – largely for how this catastrophic start did not dim his enthusiasm.
“I guess I’m not your conventional English 10, but Richard Hill gave me so much game time,” Henry says. “They took to the way I play in France and embraced me. I was looking back at England thinking, ‘I’m not really sure they are going to like the way I play’.”
Rouen reached the televised final of Federale 1, then the third tier of France’s vast pyramid, against Macon in Oyonnax. Having selected him to start, Hill watched Henry smash over an early 55-metre penalty.
That afternoon alerted suitors in Pro D2. Nevers swooped for 2018-19 and, there, Henry continued to impress while making new friends such as New Zealand internationals Zac Guildford and Hika Elliot.
His highlight reels, which feature slicing breaks and fantastic left-footed kicking against clubs as renowned as Biarritz and Perpignan, are thoroughly entertaining and will have heartened Tigers fans. As if to reinforce Henry’s glowing endorsements of France, his brother Jake, a wing, has traded Hartpury for Le Havre.
“I was prepared to do my whole career in France,” adds Henry, previously courted by Top 14 teams. “It was my family that said: ‘You can’t be an English player and not come back and show people in the Premiership what you’re about.’”
Hill believes Henry merits a Premiership place, but is concerned about his destination. “Zack is his own man, a free spirit,” he says. “Leicester don’t tend to like that.”
Henry respects those reservations. He found that, whereas the Premiership has a reputation for stunting it, creativity was celebrated in France.
“Leicester have told me not to do what George Ford does because they don’t want two George Fords,” Henry says. “They want different styles of players at 10.”
Henry is now settled in Ellis Genge’s old flat. Its proximity to Leicester train station is helpful because Henry is undertaking a sports psychology masters at the University of the West of England, Bristol.
The arrivals of head coach Steve Borthwick and conditioner Aled Walters have sparked optimism out of a chaotic summer. Henry has loved linking up with the two, describing them as conscientious and empathetic: “We’ve been training hard, but it is not a militant approach. They’ll be brilliant.”
Henry says he could write a book on his French adventure. The Tigers chapters could be even more compelling.