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FEATURE George Hendy: 'I know if I perform at my best I can do some damage.'

George Hendy: 'I know if I perform at my best I can do some damage.'
1 week ago

On 7 April 2024, in front of a frothing Franklin’s Gardens, George Hendy’s life changed forever. He’d only been on the pitch a matter of seconds as a replacement for Burger Odendaal when, on the hour mark and with their Champions Cup knock-out tie against Munster locked at 14-14, Northampton had the feed to a line-out inside their own 22.

Few club sides anywhere in the world have matched the potency of the Saints’ backline this season, but even by their standards this was blockbuster. Quick ball off the top had 22-year-old Fin Smith moving from the front foot. Fraser Dingwall – a comparative veteran at 25 – straightened and drew a tackle. Ollie Sleightholme, 24, offered support and burst through a gap before linking with 23-year-old Tommy Freeman. By the time the ball made its way to 21-year-old Hendy, Munster’s players were grasping at shadows as the flaming-haired youngster slid over in the corner, sticking his tongue out as he did so.

“It was incredible,” Hendy tells RugbyPass as his team gears up for a Premiership final showdown with Bath at Twickenham. “To score with my first touch, and to round off such a brilliant team try, that was really a moment I’ll never forget. That was something we practiced week in and week out so to be able to execute that in a game was really special. But the second one was maybe even better.”

Now with their noses in front and with eight minutes left on the clock, Northampton sought a killer blow. Around Munster’s 22, the men in green, black and gold flung passes down the aisle with a bouncing ball reaching Hendy on his heels and around 30 metres away from the try line. He gathered on the half-volley, pinned his ears back, brushed past Jack Crowley, shrugged off Simon Zebo and dotted down a match-clinching stunner.

George Hendy
George Hendy’s individual try against Munster was one of the tries of the season at Franklin’s Gardens (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

“It’s been a whirlwind since then,” he explains. “If you had said that this would have been the position I’d be in, then I’d have bitten your hand off. That game was almost like, blink and you’ll miss it. It was hard to take it all in. I was actually in a bit of shock after the game to be honest.”

English fans are not the only rugby supporters who veer into hyperbole whenever a young winger bursts on the scene. But the list of prospects capable of breaking try-scoring records for the Red Rose is long and growing longer.

The latest hotshot is Exeter’s Immanuel Feyi-Waboso who has already left a mark on the Test arena. Before him it was Leicester’s Ollie Hassell-Collins. Before him was Henry Arundell, who’s lightning in a bottle talent now feels like a distant storm following his move to France.

I try not to compare myself to other wingers. It’s a slippery slope. You can start trying to be something that you’re not. I’m doing my best to control what I can control and that’s really just my own game.

“I try not to compare myself to other wingers,” Hendy says. “It’s a slippery slope. You can start trying to be something that you’re not. I’m doing my best to control what I can control and that’s really just my own game. I’m doing my best to control my emotions on the pitch as much as possible. I’m aware that fans and maybe some journalists like to make comparisons. I get it, it’s good for the story. But I’m just being me. I know that if I perform at my best I can do some damage.”

Before the final against Bath, Hendy had played 20 senior matches for Northampton: 15 Premiership games and five Champions Cup ties. Interestingly he is not the top-ranked player across any key metric and always has a competitor above him.

When looking at each player’s first 20 games alone, Feyi-Waboso has a higher percentage of dominant carries (67%) to Hendy’s (50%). Freeman, in his first 20 matches for Saints, averaged more line-breaks per game (1.34) and made more carries (9.64) than Hendy (0.99 and 7.74). Using this time-frame, Max Malins made more break assists and had better tackle success than Hendy, Jack Rowell had more try involvements per game than Hendy, Sleightholme scored more tries per game than Hendy and Hassel-Collins made more tackles per game than Hendy.

What the numbers don’t reveal is what he looks like with a ball in his hand at full gallop. His wild hair, his rangy limbs, his wiggling hips; it’s an unorthodox style that is proving a nightmare for even seasoned defenders. Not long after his double strike against Munster, a few commentators and pundits began noticing similarities between Hendy and France’s try machine, Damian Penaud.

George is a really skilful guy and can turn his hand to lots of sports. He’s such a good athlete. And he’s tough. Put that in front of people and he comes out the other side a lot more often than he gets stopped.

Sam Vesty

“Someone else has said that,” Sam Vesty, Northampton’s head coach, acknowledged. “Why not? He’s George Hendy-esque, though. He’s a really skilful guy and can turn his hand to lots of sports. He’s such a good athlete. And he’s tough. Put that in front of people and he comes out the other side a lot more often than he gets stopped. He beats that first guy so often.”

The Ginger-Penaud or ‘Bendy Hendy’ as his Saints teammates call him, is a late bloomer in the sport. “Until a year or two ago my favourite sport was actually cricket,” he reveals. “I still play sometimes for my village team. I represented a few district sides in Warwickshire when I was younger. I’m a ‘keeper-batsman. A very tall ‘keeper but my long arms help.

“My dad is actually a keen cricketer and always encouraged me to take on the sport. But unfortunately I was never as good at cricket as I was at rugby.”

George Hendy Tommy Freeman
Northampton have some sizzling back three talent with Hendy, Tommy Freeman, George Furbank and Ollie Sleightholme (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

Not that his talent was always apparent. Three years ago – around the time he started contemplating a career in rugby – he was cut from Northampton’s academy as a few of his teammates around him were offered professional deals. “I was initially told I wasn’t going to get a contract,” Hendy says. “I was just planning to go to university then and was pretty disappointed. But I had a few academy league games left to play and just thought, ‘you’ve got nothing to lose’. So I went out there and played with this freedom. I didn’t overthink, I just let my body act. And it was some of the best rugby I’d ever played. After those games they offered me a contract and I was in. But I didn’t expect to be where I am now.”

Though he does his best not to heed the comparisons with Penaud – despite his mum sharing via WhatsApp every article that mentions her son – he recognises that such talk can only be a positive. “Look, it’s nice to be spoken about in the same sentence as a guy like that,” he concedes. “It must mean I’m doing something right. I’ve always been a pretty elusive runner and I’ve now got a bit more strength and size, so I’m able to bust through tackles. I’m also thinking more as I run, looking for a defender’s soft shoulder, trying to find mismatches, that sort of thing. But, as we’ve said already, the hype around young players can get out of hand. I just have to keep doing what I’m doing.

“Playing for Saints is ultimately the best thing for me. We’re playing some of the most attacking rugby i’ve ever seen, let alone been a part of. Every training session is fresh and attacking and exciting. Every player trusts the guy next to him and we’re loving it. We’re all mates and we all have the same mindset which is to enjoy what we’re doing. Rugby is supposed to be fun. I hope it’s clear that we’re loving the style of rugby that the coaches have us playing. Hopefully that can bring us some silverware.”

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