Interview: Andy Henderson didn't expect a career in rugby but scored a hat-trick against Ireland
Maybe the question should have been: anyone know a good plumber? Andy Henderson has completed a remarkable U-turn from the heights of international rugby to unclogging U-bends. But he still needs to be flexible and is now considering taking up yoga.
As the former centre states, “I’ve got myself into more curious angles as a plumber than I ever did playing rugby”.
Henderson was a mainstay of the Scotland rugby team from 2001 to 2008. He was considered dependable by three successive coaches and was involved in two World Cups. He also once ran in a hat-trick against Ireland.
So why’s he so hard to track down? The last time a contact heard, Henderson was training to be a plumber. Then someone else pipes up: Is he not in charge of rugby at Strathallan?
True, there’s an Andrew Henderson there. Led the school to the Scottish Cup before Christmas with a thumping win over Perthshire rivals Glenalmond.
But a quick call to the school puts a spanner in the works. “Wooah, let me stop you there,” Andy Henderson jovially orders. It’s mention of wanting to talk to him about scoring a hat-trick v Ireland that’s alerted this Andy Henderson to what’s happened. It’s clearly not an unfamiliar event.
In fact, it turns out they have been mistaken for each other for years. It doesn’t help they’ve operated in the same orbit. Henderson of Strathallan was once a coach for the Scottish women’s team but never played for Scotland.
As far back as 2001, they were being mixed up. It was a potentially critical mistake as well. Mr and Mrs Henderson arrived in the hope of seeing their son, called up to the squad for the foot-and-mouth delayed Six Nations clash with Ireland after Kenny Logan’s withdrawal, make his Scotland debut.
But they found the tickets put aside for them at the Murrayfield ticket office had already been picked up – by an “Andy Henderson”. Yes, you guessed it.
It’s just as well the confusion was eventually cleared up. Because Mr and Mrs Henderson would not want to have missed their 21-year-old son, who replaced John Leslie midway through the second-half, score a try in the 32-10 victory.
“I was running around chasing everything,” Henderson remembers now, whereabouts established. “Gregor Townsend kicked it ahead and Glenn Metcalfe was chasing up. I was trotting along behind and the ball bounced up into my hands. It was probably as much luck as you could hope for.”
However, confusion continued to bedevil the pair of namesakes. “Once we were coming back on a plane from a game when he was the ladies’ coach,” Henderson recalls. “I was sat in among the women players. Other Andy was sat among the Scotland men’s team in my seat!”
Henderson proves far from the truculent, difficult character one might imagine after what’s been presented as a retreat from the rugby frontline.
Two hours after finally making contact we’re speaking in the kitchen of his family home in Glasgow’s southside. The hastily-arranged meeting is necessary because Henderson is fitting a bathroom the following day, among other chores. “There’s only so much you can do but you are conscious of not saying no,” he says of his new life as sole employee of Henderson Plumbing. Jobs are mostly acquired through word of mouth. Customer satisfaction sounds guaranteed. One plumbers’ rating website page includes a comment: “Brilliant service, polite and punctual”.
The feedback resembles what he once merited on a rugby field. One rugby blog summed up Henderson thus: “Muffles does what Muffles has always done – runs straight, takes tackles, recycles consistently, and selflessly sets others up for tries.”
He’s clearly as reliable when it comes to fixing stopcocks. Henderson doesn’t advertise the fact he played for Scotland when doing the rounds in Glasgow and surrounding areas. “If they know I have rugby background they might ask about it,” he says. “I suppose Glasgow is not really a huge rugby place compared to football.”
Still, 53 caps for your country is some going. If not detailed on his calling card, it’s still worthy of being broadcast. His “Muffles” nickname originates from Lenzie Academy. Surprisingly, this doesn’t derive from muffled – and the sense Henderson hides his light behind a bushel. Rather, he explains, it’s from the time he missed a haircut and hair fell over his ears. “It went from Ear Muffs, to Muffs to Muffles. You know what kids are like”.
Only 21 Scotland players reached the half-century total of caps before Henderson did so, against France at Murrayfield in 2008. He concedes he reached this landmark largely by stealth.
“I suppose if I think back to the time we were playing and those players people have heard of… There are a few more recognisable names than mine.
“I was reasonably consistently in the squad but I was in and out of the team a wee bit. I had some good spells when I was getting regular games and I felt I was playing well. But it can be frustrating. If you are dropped for a game and watching, there’s nothing worse...
“I suppose to go back to what you were saying about low profile, I was not in the positions that got the attention, the 9s and the 10s.”
He scored eight tries in total for Scotland. Three came in one match – a warm-up game v Ireland 11 years ago. It might not have had the white-hot intensity of a Six Nations fixture, such as today’s clash between the same sides in Dublin. But there were World Cup places at stake.
“I did not score any other hat-tricks in senior rugby,” says Henderson. “My eldest, Jamie, had been born the week before. That summer was all about training for the World Cup. We were probably as fit and as strong as we have ever felt. We were in St Andrews for a camp and I got the call my wife, Anna, was being induced. So there was a lot of going back and forwards to the house and then back to the camp.”
In other circumstances, Henderson might have dropped out. He’s glad he didn’t. “I don’t think any of the tries were from too far out,” Henderson recalls. The Scotland he played for were less cavalier than now. Henderson didn’t catch the eye from centre in the way, say, Huw Jones does. “I think his highlights reel would be an awful lot longer than mine,” Henderson smiles.
But Jones has only 14 caps to date. Henderson was an enduring presence in the Scottish midfield for years. He’s proud, if a little embarrassed, at eclipsing legends of the game in terms of caps won.
“Now it is more common – guys are hitting these high numbers now all the time,” he says.
“When I was growing up, and my dad being from Hawick, Jim Renwick and Tony Stanger were big heroes. I think they both got 52 caps.
“I look at them now and think they’d have got 100 caps easily. I suppose it is nice to have that but as time goes on it seems less special with guys getting caps into the hundreds.”
As self-deprecating and humble as he is, Henderson deserves to be lauded. He made the very best of himself for one thing. He admits he had no great plans to play top-level rugby, never mind make a career from it. He regards this as a bonus.
Still, he’s permitted to be irritated at the way a lucrative three-year deal with Montauban was ripped up after just 12 months when the French club collapsed in debt.
“They had this small stadium jam packed with 12,000 people. When they went bust that was one of the saddest things. These people were so passionate about supporting their team and then their team got chopped down two leagues.
“They were proposing new contracts for a longer duration but less money. But ultimately they went pretty much amateur again. We finished outside the relegation places in the Top 14 that season – third bottom I think. Bayonne got a reprieve.”
Henderson is one of those players who bestrode two eras. Now 38, he remembers the amateur days. It was when rugby first beguiled him. His father settled at a doctor’s practice in Lennoxtown, basing the family nearby in Kirkintilloch. He would take his sons – there were five of them, together with three daughters – back to the Borders to watch games.
“My dad did not play a great deal,” he says. “But he grew up in Hawick, so he and his family were always into rugby. Obviously the west of Scotland is more into football. We would go down to the Borders when I was growing up to watch games. I started at Lenzie rugby club. Just me and my brothers and three other people running around in the mud.”
Henderson eventually graduated to West of Scotland, Glasgow Under-19s and Scotland Under-21s before making his Scotland debut while at Glasgow Warriors. “It was all very quick,” he says. “If you told me at school I would have played for Scotland, it was always my dream… but I’d have grabbed the chance of just one cap off the bench. Even that was beyond any expectations then.”
As late as his late teens it did not look as if Henderson would achieve what he did. “I could have quite easily have missed out on it if certain people had not backed me or said they saw something in me,” he says. “My dad, obviously, was a huge influence, and there’s a chap Ian Morrison at West of Scotland.
“I’d say I was not super-confident when I was a young guy. I needed pushed.”
There’s something heroic about the way the affable Henderson did things. He placed to one side disappointment over the early termination of his French adventure and returned to play club rugby in Glasgow. It’s not a well-worn path. Following their professional days players often lack the desire to drop down a level or else are simply too worn out and broken.
Henderson had options after a short stint providing injury cover at Newcastle Falcons. He reckons he could have signed one more professional contract, perhaps another two years of earning what he describes as reasonable money. But instead, at only 31, he signed for GHA. His first full season there was spent in Premier Division Three. Just a few months earlier he was an English Premiership player.
But he chose to take a few steps back in order to go progress his post-rugby career. Bernard Dunn, president of GHA, was director of a construction firm, where Henderson completed a plumbing apprenticeship. He noted those who perhaps didn’t have the backing he enjoyed and so were destined to play out their days in club rugby.
“You saw a lot of talented guys and guys you think if their circumstances were different, if certain people had pushed them more, what might they have done?” he says. He remembers playing against a young Finn Russell, who is certainly managing to fulfil his potential.
“It might even have been one of my first games for GHA. He was playing for Falkirk. I remember seeing this quite frail looking guy at stand off and thinking ‘this will be all right’. But he packed a punch.
“I am not saying I had the foresight to say that guy will play for Scotland. But I thought to myself, ‘jings there are some talented guys around in the club game’.”
Henderson was not alone in making the journey down the way from professional rugby and remembers battling against former Scotland teammate Craig Hamilton, who was at Falkirk. “I think he’s still playing. But it’s quite rare I suppose.
“So many guys now finish because of injury,” he adds. “When I was playing full-time if you said I would play that long afterwards for a club I’d be surprised – certainly in terms of having the passion to train in the winter and the mud every Tuesday and Thursday night.”
He was 36 when he finished, two seasons ago. “To go back and play for a club after being professional was so refreshing,” he says. “Before that you were just so conscious of your own performance. Every two years or so your contract is up and your job was on the line.
“But going back to the club, it was just all about winning the game. That’s where your pleasure comes from.”
Conscious of his early start in the morning, we wrap things up there. After all, plumbers are in particular demand now following the pipe-bursting drop in temperature.
Scotland, meanwhile, are in need of a hero – preferably ones who score hat-tricks in handsome wins over Ireland. Sadly Henderson isn’t available for this type of call-out anymore.