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George Hendy could become England’s answer to Damian Penaud

George Hendy left Simon Zebo in his wake - George Hendy could become England's answer to Damian Penaud
Catch me if you can – George Hendy left Simon Zebo in his wake with a match-winning performance against Munster - Shutterstock/Ashley Western

Predicting the future for young players, however promising, is fraught with uncertainty. But there is one safe bet regarding George Hendy, the 21-year-old enjoying a blockbuster breakthrough campaign at Northampton Saints. He will never want for creative nicknames.

Known as ‘Bendy Hendy’ while on loan at Bedford Blues last season, he has a galloping gait that is sure to inspire equine imagery. What about ‘The Ginger Penaud’, too? Sam Vesty, the Saints head coach, is not discounting comparisons to France’s mazy-running magician.

“Someone else has said that,” Vesty acknowledges. “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.”

Two tries in the last 20 minutes of an Investec Champions Cup knockout tie, as Hendy pulled off as a match-winning replacement against Munster last weekend, is a decent way to announce yourself to a wider audience and showcase that deceptive dynamism.

“He’s unassumingly very quick and very powerful,” adds James Ramm, who fed Hendy for the first of this decisive brace. “A bag of spanners to tackle, really.”

Ollie Sleightholme’s electric break, off the shoulder of Fin Smith, set up the first. Hendy’s second, which saw him gather a bouncing ball before stepping around Jack Crowley and then shrugging off Simon Zebo, was an athletic individual effort.

“’Bendy Hendy’ is what we called him here,” smiles Mike Rayer, the Bedford Blues director of rugby. “He’s quite unique in that sense, which is how he ended up scoring the second try. It was almost like the disconnection in his legs got him away from the first tackle. The second bit, which I enjoyed just as much, was his recognition that he was getting closed down again.

“He got his fend out quickly, which looked like an instinctive thing to do. He’s obviously been coached really well to do that type of stuff. For him to bring it out to get away from Simon Zebo was a special bit of work. You almost fancy him to ride tackles and get out of them because his legs do things that not a lot of people’s legs do.”

The feat, which continued an increasingly impressive year for Northampton by sweeping them into a quarter-final against the Bulls, may have catapulted Hendy into the consciousness of previously unfamiliar onlookers. Yet there have been unquestionable hints of his class for some time.

Two years ago, in a game that featured two astonishing solo tries from Henry Arundell, Hendy came off the bench for England Under-20 against Scotland and sped 80 metres up the pitch directly from a restart. He beat three defenders with his speed and sold a delicious dummy to evade a fourth, eventually sending Ethan Grayson over the line.

Phil Dowson, the Northampton director of rugby, hails Hendy as another success story of the club academy. Mark Hopley, the head of that academy, incidentally describes Hendy as a man “with his legs on back to front”. Dowson remembers watching a teenage Hendy go through an extensive stretching routine, revealing himself as a “conscientious” and “professional” operator. A spell at Bedford in the Championship then readied him for the Northampton first-team.

“The joy of that relationship between us and Bedford Blues is how people like George Hendy can go in and have a half-season there playing week-in, week-out, learning his trade and gets confident from the stuff he’s doing,” Dowson explains.

“A conversation that had an impact on me this year was him telling me how he’d moved out of the academy house and in with [back-rower] Angus Scott-Young. He said how much that had improved his professionalism again, with regard to how he prepared for training and his diet – all of those sorts of things.

“I think that maturity level is one of the differences this year. It’s unfortunate that he got an injury when he did but he’s come back and he looks powerful, hungry and is working incredibly hard off the field. That’s effectively the MO of the club.”

Rayer describes how his second-tier club has become an unofficial finishing school. “What we do is provide a vehicle for the guys to come and express themselves,” adds the former Wales full-back. “There is not as much pressure on them in terms of big crowds. But what we make sure they do is give complete buy-in on the training pitch and then express themselves. When he came here, we just wanted him to be George Hendy, really, and he grew over the season.”

George Hendy scores a try against Munster
Flying high – Hendy's time at Bedford seemingly served him well - PA/David Davies

That gave way to a series of strong performances to begin the current season, which Hendy has spent flitting between wing and full-back. He suffered a nasty knee injury against Toulon in December but joined Ramm in rehab and returned three months later.

Northampton’s back-three options are formidable. This year will be considered as a significant England check-point for Tommy Freeman and George Furbank, while Sleightholme has gone to the next level. You also have Tom Seabrook as well as Ramm and Hendy.

Jake Sharp, another Bedford old boy who now holds the role of transition coach at Saints, has a specific remit to develop “less glamorous” aspects – high balls, kicking, breakdown work on wide rucks and other areas. Northampton will be sure to keep encouraging Hendy’s distinctive assets as well.

“He’s got a rangy, weird running style,” Dowson says. “But whenever I watch him carry, particularly on counter-attack, I always feel like he’s going to come out the back of something. It always feels that it wouldn’t be surprising to see him come through the melee of bodies.

“He’s just very powerful and he does all those other bits as well. There are things he has to learn but he’s definitely got his head screwed on.”

Power, pace, skill and savvy are a potent combination. Expect Hendy to acquire more affectionate nicknames as he goes.

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