George Hendy could be England’s answer to Damian Penaud

Join us if you can – George Hendy leaves Simon Zebo behind with match-winner against Munster – Shutterstock/Ashley Western

Predicting the future of young players, no matter how bright, is fraught with uncertainty. But there is one safe bet for George Hendy, the 21-year-old who is enjoying a stellar campaign at Northampton Saints. He won’t want creative nicknames.

Nicknamed ‘Bendy Hendy’ while on loan at Bedford Blues last season, he has a formidable gait that is sure to evoke equine imagery. How about ‘The Ginger Penaud’, too? Saints head coach Sam Vesty is not discounting comparisons with the French mazy wizard.

“Someone else has said that,” Vesty admits. “Why not? It is George Hendy-esque, though. He is a very skilled man and can turn his hand to many sports. He is a good athlete. And it’s tough. Put that in front of people and it comes out the other side far more often than it is stopped. He hits that first guy so often.”

Two tries in the last 20 minutes of the Investec Champions Cup final, when Hendy stepped up as the game-winning substitute against the Munster last weekend.

“He’s incredibly fast and incredibly powerful,” says James Ramm, who fed Hendy for this decisive first move. “A bag of crap to deal with, really.”

Ollie Sleightholme’s electric break, off the shoulder of Fin Smith, set up the first. Hendy’s second was an athletic solo effort, as he collected a bouncing ball before going past Jack Crowley and then off Simon Zebo.

“Bendy Hendy is what we call him here,” said Bedford Blues director of rugby Mike Rayer. “He’s unique in that sense, and that’s how he ended up scoring the second try. It was almost like the disconnect in his legs that he got out of the first fight. The second piece, which I really enjoyed, was his recognition that he was becoming closed off again.

“He took care of it quickly, which seemed like an instinctive thing to do. He is obviously very well trained to do that kind of thing. It was a lot of work for him to get him out to escape from Simon Zebo. You almost want to mark him and get out of them because his feet do things that not many people’s feet do.”

The achievement, which continued an increasingly impressive year for Northampton by sweeping them into the quarter-final against the Bulls, may have thrust Hendy into the awareness of previously unfamiliar audiences. But there have been undoubted hints of his class for some time.

Two years ago, in a game that featured two great solo tries from Henry Arundell, Hendy came off the bench for England Under-20s against Scotland and sprinted 80 meters up the field straight from the restart. He beat three defenders with his speed and sold a delicious dummy to avoid the quarterback, which eventually put Ethan Grayson over the line.

Phil Dowson, Northampton’s director of rugby, hails Hendy as another success story for the clubs academy. Mark Hopley, the head of that academy, incidentally describes Hendy as a “back-to-front” man. Dowson remembers watching Hendy, a teenager, go through a lengthy stretching procedure, revealing himself to be a “conscientious” and “professional” operator. A spell at Bedford in the Championship then left him for the Northampton first team.

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

“A conversation that impressed me this year was him telling me how he moved out of the academy house and into [back-rower] Angus Scott-Young. He said that again improved his professionalism, in terms of how he prepared for training and his diet – all those things.

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

Rayer describes how his second-tier club has become an unofficial finishing school. “What we do is provide a vehicle for the lads to come and express themselves,” says the former Wales full-back. “They don’t have as much pressure from the big crowds. But what we ensure is that they buy in completely on the training pitch and then express themselves. When he came here, we just wanted George Hendy to be there, really, and he grew over the season.”

George Hendy scored a try against MunsterGeorge Hendy scored a try against Munster

Flying high – Hendy’s time at Bedford seems to have done him well – PA/David Davies

That gave way to a string of strong performances to start the current season, which saw Hendy float between wing and goalkeeper. He suffered a serious knee injury against Toulon in December but joined Ramm in rehab and returned three months later.

Northampton’s three options are amazing. This year will be seen as a landmark England checkpoint for Tommy Freeman and George Furbank, and Sleightholme has gone to the next level. You have Tom Seabrook as well as Ramm and Hendy.

Jake Sharp, another old Bedford boy who now has a transition coach role at Saints, is tasked with developing the “less glamorous” aspects – high balls, kicking, breaking work on wide rucks and other areas. Northampton will be sure to encourage Hendy’s distinctive assets as well.

“He has a weird running style,” says Dowson. “But whenever I watch him in action, especially on the counter-attack, I always feel that he will come out with something. It always feels like it wouldn’t be surprising to see him come through the physical melee.

“It’s very powerful and it does all those other bits as well. He’s got things to learn but he’s definitely got his head down.”

Power, speed, skill and intelligence are a powerful combination. Expect Hendy to get more affectionate nicknames as he goes.

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