THE Scottish second-row roundabout has been spinning at a fair old lick in recent months, with Jonny and Richie Gray, Tim Swinson, Andrew Davidson, Marshall Sykes, Callum Hunter-Hill and Hamish Bain all on the move.
Amid all that, Cameron Henderson’s switch in March from the Scottish Rugby academy set-up to Leicester Tigers on a three-year deal passed almost without comment – which is surprising given that he had recently been one of the outstanding performers for a Scotland Under-20s team which ended an impressive Six Nations campaign with a brilliant 52-17 dismantling of Wales just before the Covid-19 lockdown came into force.
You can’t help feeling that at a time when the Scottish pro game is looking to give youth its head, one of the players best equipped to move up a level has been allowed to slip through the net – although the Murrayfield Performance Department will no doubt continue to keep a close eye on his progress in the months and years to come.
Henderson – who was born in Hong Kong and moved to Scotland aged 13, going on to be a member of the Strathallan side which won the Scottish Schools’ Cup three years ago – has been on the rugby radar up here for some time. He played two years for the Scotland Under-18s team followed by two more for the Under-20s. After leaving school in the summer of 2018, he became a stage three member of the FOSROC Scottish Rugby Academy (aligned with Glasgow Warriors) and was a member of the Stirling County squad during the inaugural Super6 campaign.
While he was disappointed with his own form in Super6, Henderson’s full potential became apparent when he pulled on the Scotland Under-20s jersey last season, which is what brought him to the attention of Leicester’s new head coach Steve Borthwick.
“Personally, I felt like the Six Nations was a time when I really came into my own,” he says. “I wanted to take on a more dominant role in the team, contribute with the ball in hand and lead from the front in that sense, and I was pretty pleased with how that went.
“The way that the team was playing really suited my style, which contributed to me having a good championship, and I think that was a big factor in me catching Leicester’s eye.”
He is 6ft 7ins – rangy but robust – and, going by the reasoning he provides for his decision to step out of his comfort zone to join Leicester, it is clear that the 20-year-old is not short of the hard-nosed desire required to go a long way in the game.
“It was after the Six Nations that Leicester got in touch with my agent and from there I had a couple of Zoom calls with Steve [Borthwick] and Geordan Murphy [the club’s Director of Rugby], and they were really good conversations, so it just all happened from there,” explains Henderson, who has just transferred from the Open University to Loughborough ahead of the second year of his finance and management degree.
“It was a very difficult decision in terms of moving away from the family and so on, but it was clear to me that it was the best decision for my career. There was offers on the table to stay in Scotland but from the conversations I had with Leicester Tigers, I felt that for the progression of my career it was just going to work better down here than up in Glasgow.
“I really liked the vision of Steve and the guys at the club who are really positive about how they want to drive everything forward. It just sounded like a really exciting thing to be involved with.
“Steve obviously has great pedigree as a coach and with him being a former international second-row I just felt like he was somebody who could get a lot out of me as a player.
“And, from what Steve has said, I can see a pathway here in terms of playing opportunities to really push my career on, so that was a real driving force as well. Being locked in to three years is also very pleasing.”
Keeping an eye on the prize
Leicester do not have their troubles to seek at the moment. They had the worst record in the Gallagher Premiership last season, and only avoided bottom spot because Saracens had been slammed with a 105 point reduction for breaches of salary cap regulations.
Then, earlier this week, five 1st XV squad members, including England centre Manu Tuilagi, departed Welford Road after choosing not to accept revised contract terms as the club battles to adapt to the financial implications of the Covid-19 crisis.
But Henderson – quite understandably – is not concerning himself worrying about such matters, focussing instead on integrating himself into one of the most renowned club cultures in the English game. He is now nearing the end of his first week training with the Tigers, working with the other second-rows whilst observing the appropriate social distancing guidelines.
“It is groups of 10 at the moment, keeping a social distance at all times, wearing masks in the gym, and all the sensible precautions that have been set out for us,” he explains. “I’ve already seen in the short time I have been here that it is a huge club and for the people around Leicester it is a big part of the city.
“It has been good – hopefully we’ll get into actual rugby in the next week or so.”
He is on an academy contract next season which will become a senior deal for the two years after that but doesn’t plan to hang about waiting for his shot in the big team, and he appears undaunted by the prospect of competing against Argentina international Tomás Lavanini, Australian international Blake Enever, Calum Green, Harry Wells and Sam Lewis for minutes on the pitch.
“The physical development is getting there although I know I’m not the finished article, but the big thing for me is to get regular game time at the highest possible level – to push into the Leicester team and just see where it goes from there,” he says.
“You can be big, but you need to have the skillset and the understanding of the game to be successful in rugby. It is a bit of a balancing act between putting on bulk but retaining that mobility and athleticism which I feel sets me apart, so it is a fine line.
“The ambition is to compete and try to push myself into that team sooner rather than later.”