Andrew Henderson raring to go and optimistic for Cambridge Rugby Club’s National League One season
“Personally, since the age of about six, it’s the longest I’ve ever not played rugby for.”
As Andrew Henderson reflects on the past 18 months, you can sense his anticipation for the start of a new National League One season.
Cambridge have been without a competitive game of rugby since March 7, which will be 545 days by the time they kick off at home to Rams this Saturday (September 4).
“Even with injuries I’ve never had so long off,” says the 32-year-old winger.
“I’ve been, touch wood, quite fortunate over the years with longer term injuries. This is by far and away the longest period I have had off the paddock.”
Rugby union was not permitted to make any sort of real return last season and only came back in the spring with adapted rules, which meant no scrums or mauls.
The pandemic has brought many challenges for so many people, but in a rugby sense at the community game level, among the tests for players was to find ways to stay in shape.
Henderson did that by setting a goal by taking on a physical challenge for a friend’s charity.
“A lot of people have gone through that initial phase of staying really fit, and when we were in lockdown for so long I think it was probably really hard mentally to keep motivated and keep going,” he explains.
“I did four marathon distances on four different bits of gym kit in the same day. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, harder than any rugby game.
“It’s been tough, but that’s how I got through it and managed it. I don’t know what I would have done had I not done that challenge – I’m sure I would have kept something going.”
The squad, which had been kept together by group chats on WhatsApp and Zoom, were able to return to adjusted training last year in the hope that there would be an autumn start to the campaign.
That it never arrived did not deter the squad, which has largely stayed together from the 2020/21 season that never was.
“It was good to meet all the new players we had not really seen much of until then,” says Henderson.
“It really helped us having that six-week period where we were allowed to do stuff before they locked it down again.”
It will be a third year at Cambridge for the former Ealing Trailfinders player, who moved to the club on returning from Hong Kong. He had previously been coached by director of rugby Richie Williams while at university and dropped him a line at the end of his first season in charge when Cambridge beat the drop.
“I just messaged him as a friend to say, ‘tough gig in National One, I’ve played in that league for a long time and I know how hard it can be so congratulations on staying up’,” explains Henderson.
“Me and my partner didn’t want to move back to London, which is where we spent a lot of our adult life, and Richie said what are your plans to play.
“I was considering retiring at that point, and I was really fortunate that Cambridge gave me an opportunity and I’ve not really looked back since.
“We’ve got a really good group of lads and a really good group of coaching staff that are all fighting the same battle, wanting to make the club better and do bigger things so it’s an exciting place to be.”
That was the second of two stints in Hong Kong for Henderson, who was first there for work in 2014 and then again in 2018.
“Anyone that is thinking about it, I would definitely recommend it,” says Henderson.
“Culturally, it’s very different to anything you see over here. There are some things that are far in advance of anything we’ve got.
“They absolutely love the rugby over there but there are only six pro teams so you are fairly limited in that sense. It’s quite nice in terms of you’re not ever having to travel very far, you definitely don’t have to go to places as far away, like Darlington, Blaydon or Plymouth.
“It’s really cool and the standard is good, but I don’t think it’s quite where it needs to be if it wants to progress Hong Kong onto the next stage at international level and getting on the sevens world cup and the Rugby World Cup as a XVs side, they need to expand that.
“But it’s really difficult in the ex-pat community because there are not a lot of local lads that play rugby, they love their football.”
Henderson was delighted to have the chance to work with Williams again, and believes that the systems, processes and environment created at Volac Park will stand them in good stead this season.
“He has always been a guy that I’ve got on with; you would struggle not to get on with Richie, he is a really nice lad,” says Henderson.
“What he is doing on and off the pitch is great, and some of the stuff we’re going through as a group in terms of getting to know each other better, bonding more as a group, a couple of exercises we do before every training session, things like that I think are really important.
“I think that will put us in good stead and stand true in the darker months of January and February.”
Henderson is impressed with the squad that Cambridge have built for the new season and believes that the recruitment during the past two summers, strengthening what was already in place, could help them challenge at the higher echelons of the table.
“National One is a gruelling, long season and having been a bit of a veteran of this league I know what it takes to finish higher up, and I think we’ve got the squad to do it,” he says.
“I think this year, National One is as good as it’s ever been.
“You’ve got the Championship, which in my opinion is not a dead league but it is a league where people are going to struggle to attract players because guys can see they can go and get a good level of rugby, earn some money whilst enjoying it in National One and still have an income from their job – people need to be able to survive.
“With what has happened with the pandemic, Championship clubs have really struggled so I think a lot of those guys you will see filtering down to National One.
“It is great for the league and the standard but it means probably more sore bodies on a Sunday morning, and a higher standard so it will be a really tough season.”
He added: “I honestly think we could be right up there come the end of the season. There are lots of things you can’t predict, and we can only control the controllables.
“But I’m confident that we will be in a stronger position this season than we have in the last few seasons.”