JAKE HENRY plays it cool when asked about his record of two tries from two appearances for Southern Knights since his comeback after over 13 months out of action with a ruptured achilles. “I’ll take that,” he shrugs. “The boys made the opportunities, and I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to get those walk-ins.”
He is doing himself a disservice here. The first of those two ‘walk-ins’, during a man-of-the-match against Heriot’s in round two of this year’s 2021 Super6 season, required some real gas to keep out of reach of opposite number Rory McMichael, and the second against Ayrshire Bulls last weekend came off a nice support line and took another injection of pace to finish off. Okay, so they might not have been length-of-the-park classics, but he certainly didn’t look like a guy who was trying to re-learn how to walk less than a year ago.
“We were just coming back from lockdown and about a week into training I was doing some fitness work when I took a step back then went to accelerate forward and it [the achilles] snapped,” he explains. “I was in so much shock that I didn’t feel it until I was on the physio bench. Then, when it started to dawn on my what I had done, the pain started to set in. I was lying there, I couldn’t move my foot, and it was just a horrible experience.
“I asked the physio if it was going to be bad, and I began to really understand that it was serious with the way he said: ‘It’s not good’. Then, about a week later, I asked how long it was going to be: and he said it could be six to eight months because I was young so it might repair more quickly, but usually this sort of injury is over a year … and that’s what it ended up being.
“To be fair, I didn’t miss much rugby compared to my peers. They played two games more than me in that whole season because of lockdown. Okay, they were training throughout that period, but I didn’t miss as much rugby as I thought I would, so from that side it was okay.
“It was more dealing with learning how to walk again,” he continues. “That is something that you take for granted, so it was probably the hardest part.
“After the operation I was in bed for a week or so, not allowed to put any weight on it. Then the physios gave me some exercises to get my foot moving, but there was still no weight-bearing and I still couldn’t move my toes individually.
“Once we got past that it was about building ankle stiffness and it was just a very slow process chipping away at things over a period of four or five months to get to the point where I could do a single calf-raise. Then I needed 20 calf-raises before I was allowed to run, and when I was able to run it was at a certain pace for a specific period of time.”
These were, without doubt, tough times – and Henry is grateful for the way he was looked after during that period.
“How Edinburgh managed me was really good and that made it a lot easier,” he stresses. “I didn’t feel at any point that my career might be over or anything like that. I spent a lot of time working with Luke Vella, one of the S&C coaches, and he’s an expert at helping get people who have had achilles injuries back up and running, so I was in safe hands, and I felt really confident throughout the whole thing.”
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Even now, Henry hasn’t managed to put the injury fully behind him.
“I was told that it will take another year before it stops feeling strange,” he explains. “It doesn’t feel like it’s your foot. It’s weird. The mechanics are completely different in terms of the way it has been built up, so I run differently now. How I activate my calf is different. So, it will be a couple more months to get past that, and then it is just about getting back up to pace with reading the game. I’ve caught myself reacting a little bit late to things rather than anticipating things, so I need to get past that.”
At the grand old age of 21 at the end of this month, Henry has an impressively steady head on those young shoulders, having learned the hard way about taking the rough with the smooth. The snapped achilles was just the latest in a series of serious injury setbacks he has had to live through, including two torn hamstrings which meant he missed out on back-to-back Scotland under-18s seasons, and a knee injury which kept him sidelined during the first of his two years in the under-20s bracket.
Once fit again, he spent five months in early 2019 training and playing at the famous Stellenbosch University in South Africa as part of the Macphail Scholarship programme, which has a long history of providing promising young Scots – including Finn Russell, Jonny Gray, Grant Gilchrist and John Barclay – the chance to develop their game in an overseas elite rugby environment.
That tee-d him up nicely to play every game for Scotland Under-20s during the 2020 Six Nations, scoring a try in the team’s narrow defeat to France. The last match of that campaign was the excellent 52-17 away victory over Wales, which was one of the last sports matches to go ahead in Britain before Covid plunged the nation into lockdown, meaning that summer’s Junior World Trophy was cancelled. Just as he was finally building up a proper head of steam, along came a global pandemic to put a spanner in the works.
“It has been a rocky ride,” he reflects. “I’ve had quite a lot of injuries early in my career, but I feel that has made me know my own body better and how to manage it better.”
Born in London, Henry moved with his family to Dingwall at the age of three, and although his mother’s side of the clan were keen on rugby it wasn’t until he came home from primary school with a flyer from his local club of Ross Sutherland that he tried his hand at the sport. He remembers running around the park during his first match without any idea of the rules, but he enjoyed the experience so kept going back, and it wasn’t long before he showed up on Murrayfield’s scouting radar.
One of the big frustrations in Scottish rugby at the moment is the lack of a clear development pathway for emerging players in the north, but on this occasion Borders academy manager Chris Dewsnap stepped in to offer the 17-year-old Henry a place to live in Gala, meaning the burden of travel would no longer be a factor in his rugby ambitions.
He is now in his third season as a full-time stage-three player in the FOSROC Scottish Academy, aligned with Edinburgh, and is focussed on making up for lost time.
“We had our one-to-ones at the end of last season, and it was with Richard Cockerill [former Edinburgh head coach],” Henry recalls. “He just said he thought it would be poor from Edinburgh’s point of view if they didn’t give me another shot because they had only heard good things about me putting the work in to get back from that injury – I hadn’t moaned about my bad luck and just got on with it – so they renewed my last contract and said if I go well this year then hopefully at the end of this 12-months I can get some good news.
“I don’t know what will happen now with a new head coach. Mike Blair only properly started last week so I’ve not had a chance to speak to him properly yet. But I’m taking the view that the same applies in terms of the ball being in my court to show what I can do.”
Henry won’t get a chance to build on his recent form in Super6 for second in the table Knights when they host Boroughmuir Bears this Sunday as he is away with Edinburgh at their pre-season camp in Largs, and Covid bubble protocols mean it is not clear whether he will be available when the Borderers take on current table-toppers Watsonians at Myreside the following Friday night.
But he hopes to be back in action soon, because he knows at this stage in his career that it is time in the saddle which is going to develop his game.
“I just need to keep playing as much as I can and focus on my defence because that’s never been the strongest part of my game,” he concludes. “If I manage that then I feel like I’ll be much more of a solid player.”