Varsity Match 2017: Jake Hennessey in the mould of Cambridge University's previous generations
Young centre goes traditional route to balance rugby and studies
Jake Hennessey is almost rolling back the clock to the days before professionalism in rugby.
In previous decades, the stars of the future would arrive at Cambridge University, make a name for themselves and then rise to the highest levels of the game.
With the onset of professionalism, the academy structure has come to the fore and that has almost necessitated that players get into the system as soon as possible.
But it is slightly different for 19-year-old Hennessey.
He has caught the eye this Michaelmas Term, forming a strong partnership in the centres with Archie Russell, and it is maybe no surprise given that he is part of Harlequins’ senior academy and captained them to the Premiership Under-18 tournament last season.
However, plotting a route through life has been important for Hennessey and so the former King’s College School, Wimbledon student has chosen his options carefully.
“I’ve always been massively into my rugby but when I was at school, once I was lucky enough to be offered the contract, it was never a case of ‘Will I be able to go to uni?’. It was still ‘where I can I get the best uni and keep my rugby up to a high standard?’,” said Hennessey.
“Obviously, it’s a massively prestigious uni with a rugby club that has an exceptional history, and the opportunity to play in the Varsity Match was a tantalising one as well.
“It’s just about maximising them both at the moment to lay the platform for future years.”
Hennessey is studying French with Ancient Greek at Trinity College, which he admits is a niche subject.
“I think I’m the only person I know of in the whole university doing a modern language with Ancient Greek, having done it at A level,” he said.
“It’s a bit niche, a bit different but it’s been a fun challenge and has fitted in quite well around the rugby as well.
“They were just subjects that I naturally had a bit more capability in than others; and they were just subject areas that I always found interesting.”
The course is four years, with a year abroad, but Hennessey does remain contracted with Harlequins.
He spent pre-season at the Stoop, and between terms will be back training with Quins.
“It’s awesome to have that mixture of the Cambridge set-up and then being a small fish in a very big pond,” he said.
“Just having the experience of all the other guys around is great for my development.
“It will always keep me busy, and give me something to focus on to keep pushing and challenging myself.
“And a lot of the way I like to approach life is about challenging myself and looking to better myself so I think hopefully that will be a good way to do it.
“I’m obviously very fortunate that Quins are willing to be flexible and allow me to study during these times, and they are great at keeping in touch and helping me with my development, even when I’m away from their realms.
“I guess it is a bit old fashioned, but I’m also very lucky to be allowed to do it, and hopefully at the end of my studies I will have a career in rugby ahead.
“Lots can happen between now and then, but that’s the dream and what I’m working towards.”
If his performances at Grange Road this term are anything to go by, then he would appear to be making good progress.
Stepping out of youth rugby and playing against men for the first time, Hennessey has not looked at all fazed, and one of the key components to that has perhaps been his centre partnership with Russell.
They have styles that seem ideally suited to each other, which must be a coach’s dream.
“Archie’s a great player and I think we’ve formed a good combination,” said Hennessey.
“We understand now how each of us likes to play, and we’ve formed a really good relationship which hopefully can come good at Twickenham.
“There are some things we’re similar at: we both like getting off the line and using our footwork and strength to avoid tackles. I think our skill sets complement each other quite nicely in that regard.
“We both like playing attacking rugby, and getting the ball wide. Rather than just tucking it up the jumper we want to beat players and use our skills to get us on the front foot, get over the gain line and score tries.
“It’s been good to play alongside him and will be good to do the same at Twickenham.”
So maybe Hennessey is destined to be the next graduate of Cambridge University’s fine production line of international players.