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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport | Rugby Union -

Char­lie Mor­gan

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.

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