It’s difficult to accurately gauge the impact Jack Henderson has had in his first season at Werribee just by looking at his numbers.
The 18-year-old defender was voted best afield for his side against Richmond in round four – just his fourth game in the “big W” and his final as his club's 23rd player – but finished with just nine disposals and five marks.
In the stunning round-nine upset win over the Box Hill Hawks – the side he will again come up again this weekend in the beyondblue Cup – his seemingly modest 13 disposals and four marks again saw him credited as one of the key contributors to the end result.
A better measure of Henderson’s impact can be found in the numbers of his direct opponents – or, rather, his ability to restrict those numbers.
Against the Tigers, he lined up on livewire AFL-listed forward Shai Bolton, who had looked in ominous touch across the opening two games of the season with a return of 5.5 and an average of 17.5 disposals and 6.5 marks. Under close attention from Henderson, Bolton was restricted to nine disposals – which included only one effective kick – and was unable to hit the scoreboard or take a single mark.
The story against the Hawks was a similar one. The dangerous Billy Murphy already had two goals and seven kicks when Henderson was assigned to him just after quarter time. He kicked the very next goal of the game, but it would be his last kick for the day, Henderson applying the screws to help swing the game sharply in Werribee’s favour.
With his resume also including impressive negating performances on Essendon’s Josh Green, Collingwood’s Travis Varcoe, and former Geelong Falcons teammate and current Geelong AFL-lister Gryan Miers, Henderson has quickly established himself as of the premier small lockdown backs in the competition just 16 games into his VFL career.
“It’s been a tremendous effort to have played every game as an exiting TAC Cup boy,” Werribee senior coach John Lamont says of his young charge.
“It doesn’t happen too often that a player starts as a 23rd player and then maintains his spot, so he’s done really well. He’s had some good jobs on specific players and really established himself among the playing group.
“Before his knee reconstruction, Max Augerinos had sort of defied the odds last year in coming in from the Falcons. Prior to that, you have to go right back to [former captain] Scott Sherlock, who came in from the Jets and played a lot of footy in his first year, so Jack’s definitely exceeded our expectations, which has been great.”
Making Henderson’s first-year success all the more remarkable is the fact he arrived at Werribee without a wealth of defensive experience.
While the boy from Blighty in the New South Wales Riverina – who first made the trip down south to board at the prestigious Geelong College – initially started down back with the Falcons in their successful 2017 TAC Cup premiership campaign, he had come to attention predominantly as a high-flying midfielder and forward capable of belying his 177cm stature with an almighty leap.
“He ended up back in defence for the Williamstown practice match, and he just showed that tenacity he’s got and desire to beat his bloke, so we just kept going with it,” Lamont explains.
“[Michael] Sodomaco was playing through the midfield, so there was a real opportunity for another small defender, particularly to lock down on guys and enable [Dane] McFarlane to run and generate some play.
“He showed a bit and got the gig for round one and hasn’t looked back, really.”
The new role has meant Henderson has had to contain his natural flair at times, but he’s nonetheless thriving on the opportunity to push beyond his comfort zone and is quick to credit the role of his Werribee teammates and coaching staff in allowing him to adapt so well.
“I was pretty overwhelmed those first couple of games,” Henderson recalls.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to play down back because I’d played forward in most of the practice games, but it’s been great. It’s been a bit of a challenge at times, but I’ve loved every bit of it.
“I definitely couldn’t have got through it without the support of the rest of the back six on the ground, and going through the vision every training session with ‘Rock’ [defensive coach Shayne Stone] has been enormous, so I’ve learnt a lot from each game.”
While Henderson looks to have established his niche down back, he rates being “pretty versatile” as one of his biggest strengths as a player and so remains open to the possibility of a return to the midfield or the chance to push forward.
But continuing in his defensive role could well be in Henderson’s best interest – not to mention Werribee’s – if Lamont’s view that those sorts of lockdown capabilities could increasingly become in demand in the AFL environment is anything to go by.
“There’s definitely a role in football at higher levels for guys who have got the natural inclination to want to stop the dangerous opposition players,” says Lamont.
“There’s a trend in AFL football towards smaller forward lines, and Richmond is leading the charge, so to beat those teams, the opposition must have players who are willing to sacrifice their own game to lock down and negate on opposition playmakers.
“I think the time will come when players like Jack will generate more interest at AFL level.”