As are the English rugby players, zack henry has walked the road less traveled through the professional game.
After showing promise playing for the University of Bath, in 2016 Henry took a leap of faith and joined France’s Federale 1.
It was a decision that paid off.
After proving himself at Richard Hill’s ambitious Rouen, Nevers tapped him into ProD2, where he did enough in two seasons to catch the eye of then-Tigers boss Geordie Murphy. The Irishman would seduce him back to England with the opportunity to break into senior rugby in 2020, but despite his obvious skills, Henry struggled to find his place.
Henry, 27, admits feeling like a square peg in a round hole at Welford Road, where despite gaining plenty of playing time and the trust of his coaches, both sides would decide to part ways a year earlier than stipulated in his contract. .
Speaking in The French rugby podcastHenry spoke about his time in leicester and it started with a brutal physical wake-up call in the form of a super-intense English-style pre-season, a huge shock to the Brighton boy’s system that was used to a more relaxed approach in ProD2.
“We had Aled Walters who had just won the Rugby World Cup. You have Leicester who are trying to get back up the league, you have Steve Borthwick who wants to impose himself and he has done brilliantly. It was a recipe for disaster for me.
“I come from ProD2 where the training is relaxed. You do four weeks, one week off. I thought I was in good shape. Turns out he wasn’t in the slightest!” remember Henry. “I tore my hamstring actually. I think the training was too much for me.
“It was also Covid so we couldn’t do too much rugby. We all had our own lane on the field, it was like running, hitting a plate shield, getting back up; run Run Run. He was wild. Coming into this preseason [with Pau] it was so much easier.
“I ended up playing 26 games for Leicester and not getting injured during that period. The training here is so different that I don’t think my body can handle it. In France You spend a lot of time in training camp. At Leicester it was ‘Get out, you train really hard, you get back in’. Here we can spend two hours, two and a half hours in the field. There was an infamous day where I was on the pitch for three hours straight.”
Henry’s rise through the ranks occurred more or less entirely outside the standard path of English rugby development, and as a result created a player who was more comfortable on the fields of France than in his native England.
“I spent my whole career trying to get to the top division, and I did it with Leicester. Although I loved my time there, it was not for me, the way they play.
“I signed for Geordie Murphy: a completely different coaching staff, a completely different set of pretensions, then Steve came in and it was very different.
“I was happy to be in the top division, but I look back and it was a battle every week. It was really hard for me personally and the way I play, where I come from.
“Most of the boys who were at Leicester that year had come through the Prem academy system and been shaped in a certain way. I didn’t. I went to university, all my friends off the pitch are not rugby players. I went to Fed 1. Fed 1 was three weeks on, one week off. ProD2 was four weeks, one week off.
“There was no structure. In Nevers there was no structure. It was going out and playing. The same in Rouen.
“I came to Leicester and I knew from day one in Leicester that they were going to be successful. Training with him and Aled, I told all my teammates, there’s no way this club won’t get back to where it is.”
“Trying at the age of 25, 26, learning all of that in a year. In the Premiership and at Leicester, everyone on the pitch knew exactly what they had to do. The details about rucks, kick chase, box kicks, my kicks, everything was crazy.
“I come from ProD2, Fed 1 and college where you only play rugby. ‘Oh look, there’s room, I’m going to run there.
“The [Borthwick] I had a lot of confidence in myself and I played a lot of rugby, and I was excited about how it went, but I knew it wasn’t going to be sustainable for me to get the best of myself. I’m buzzing for guys and I’m still teammates with a lot of those guys. I am happy to have been part of the project, but I think that for my personal career it would not have been better to stay there.
Things would finally come to a head when Henry and Borthwick had a frank conversation about his future at the club.
“The writing was on the wall. It wasn’t said, but he knew and I knew that things weren’t working out right and that he would probably find it difficult here and that they would be better off with someone else with someone who suits his style a little more.” .
“When I had my conversation with him it was quite open and we both knew that it was of interest to both of us. I think they wanted to free up the place for freddie burns anyway.
“I spoke to my agent and told him: ‘Prem has been brilliant this year and I have nothing against Prem and I would continue to play at Prem, but we both know for now that France suits me better.
“I speak French, so coming in as a flyhalf and not speaking French could be quite different. Knowing that I spoke French, they knew that I could walk right in and talk to the French guys and the English guys.
“It was a relatively easy transition. There was no hostility between Leicester and myself.”
Now back in France with Pau, Henry is loving his rugby life again.
“Come to top 14 and play how I wanted to play. I was at the highest level, but I really enjoyed it and lived the moment in the stadiums. I really present it, I really enjoy it. Those were probably some of the happiest games of my career.
“I felt that the training I had done in Leicester and the intensity, getting into the Top 14 and Pau in training, maybe he was a little more relaxed.
“It was probably the easiest transition I’ve ever had. He helped make it a new group. Everyone was trying to figure out who was who, etc. I went straight in. For nine games I was 10, fullback, 10, fullback. It was a very easy transition. The culture of this club is incredible. Everyone is so nice.
“There have been no cuts! She has surprised me, really. The way I see rugby after coming here from Leicester. The guys are like helping each other to the ground after a tough start in training… I think we’re trying to move towards a little bit of anger, a little bit of aggression, whatever, a little bit of cruelty without losing the culture we have. .”
It seems that Zack Henry has found his home away from home.
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