One to Watch: Rugby Blue Jake Hennessey

Image credit: Getty Images for Harlequins FC

We sit down in a room just above Trinity bar, looking out on the hallowed turf of the college’s famous quad. It is one of those places in Cambridge that wears it’s prestige like a strong musk. But then fresher Jake Hennessey takes it all in his stride.

“I’m really enjoying it in the Blues squad, [there’s a] really good team environment,” he said. “There’s no hierarchy, there’s no you’re a fresher I’m a post-grad. We’re all the Blues together. I really look forward to getting to training every evening. I think it provides a good balance to my life here.”

Balance, it would quickly become clear, was the Wimbledon-born fresher’s touchstone.

Studying French and Ancient Greek, Jake Hennessey came to Cambridge with a wealth of rugby experience. He captained Harlequins to the U18s title last year, playing in every fixture, had a starring role for his school, King’s College Wimbledon, and even earnt a Scotland U19s cap. Having travelled with the Blues squad to Paris in May and toured South Africa in the summer, Hennessey has quickly settled in. The strong chemistry he already has with his teammates was clear for all to see against Loughborough last month, setting off some dazzling combination play with Chris Bell and Henry King to carve out a try.

Despite breaking into the Harlequins academy this summer, one of only six players in their U18s squad to do so, for Hennessey the decision between higher education and full-time academy rugby was always clear. He is one of those few sportspeople blessed with both passion and pragmatism.

“Obviously I was very lucky to be offered a contract, and that had always been my dream,” he remarked humbly. “But careers in rugby are short. An injury and it could be over next week. I wanted to have that back-up if something goes wrong, and although rugby’s a big passion of mine I like studying as well. It was something that I wasn’t ready to give up. It was always the case of where can I get the best education rather than will I get to uni.”

Rather than being pushed into rugby, there was a romantic fortuitousness to how Hennessey fell into the sport.  “When I was five or six my best mate’s Dad was coach for the local club,” he recalled. “I was round his house one time and he said Jake come down to rugby on Sunday. I begged my Mum and Dad. They weren’t too keen to sacrifice their Sunday! Luckily they took me down, and ever since that moment they saw the enjoyment it gave me, and they’ve only been the most supportive parents they ever could have been.”

What’s more, the Trinity fresher was something of a late bloomer. He only discovered his desire to take rugby further when he was 15, by which point most youngsters have already had premonitions of greatness. Hennessey was adamant that this was a crucial advantage in his development.

“I think it’s easy to see, especially the people who really care, how it can affect them negatively once they lose that enjoyment [in] that pressure-cooker environment,” he said firmly. “That’s why coming here and studying and having a life outside of rugby is so important. I can go to a lecture and try and take my mind off it [rugby]. They both feed into each other.

As David Conn’s recently outlined in The Guardian, the cutthroat short-termism of football’s academy system has led to serious mental health problems among young players. For Hennessey in Harlequins’ development system, the love-affair with rugby is still strong.

“I’m a big believer that your mind set, even subconscious, can affect your performance,” he said, animatedly. “I’ve come here to Cambridge and just absolutely loved my rugby, and my performances have improved because of that. It was never a chore. It was always something I’d look forward to at the end of the day. That’s kept me going for this four year journey I’ve been on.

“I’ve always enjoyed that pressure with your teammates on a rugby pitch. Some of your best friends, the bonds you form on a rugby pitch are honestly life-changing and unforgettable. That helps to alleviate the pressure. Of course there’s times where it’s not always enjoyable, but the love for the game and the love for the teammates you have next to you makes the tough days bearable and the good days unforgettable.”

That’s not to say, though, that there haven’t been bumps in the road. When I brought up a video of a spectacular try from Hennessey back in 2015 on England Rugby’s Facebook, he grimaced. “A couple of weeks before [that try] I’d played a pre-season tournament with Quins, and I’d played awfully,” he shook his head with that self-reproachful look typical of sportspeople. “I was worried that that could be the end of the road for me. My nose got bashed up as well. There was a time when I wondered whether I’d even be playing in that match. I really needed that match to get my confidence up and scoring that try confirmed to me that after the low of not playing so well at that tournament that rugby was where I wanted to be.”

More than a decade on from his first taste of rugby, Hennessey still looks to the future with childlike excitement. “Short term there’s a big match at Twickenham in December,” he smiled. “Hopefully I can be involved, and we can get a win over the other place. That would be a memory I would never forget. I’ve played at the Stoop twice but never run out at HQ [Twickenham]. That would be wonderful.

“Next couple of years I just want to keep representing Cambridge well, doing my job in the shirt. If I can get some appearances for Quins in the A-League, or the Singha-Sevens, the Anglo-Welsh Cup, whatever it is, it’s always an honour to put on the Quins badge.”

And although he has only been here two weeks, I couldn’t resist asking that dreaded question: what’s next after Cambridge? 

“If I can keep going in professional rugby that would be great,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. “Hopefully I can go on to represent Harlequins. That’s the dream, and I’ll keep getting my head down and working towards that.” 

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