So the latest instalment in the career, no sorry, soap opera of Gavin Henson seems likely to see him hauled in front of the beak and asked to explain his drunken antics on Her Majesty’s transport system. Now I can tell you from first hand experience that he is not the first bloke to get a bit rowdy on a train on the way back from a rugby match. But it is a continuation of the pattern in his career where highs are undermined almost immediately by lows.
Henson had just made his way back into the Wales team after enduring frustration for much of last season and the devastation of missing the World Cup. He had just put the Ospreys into the last four of the EDF Energy Cup (for what that’s worth) by scoring all their points against Harlequins. On the announcement that he had suffered a broken hand and would be sidelined for 6 weeks, it was hard not to feel sympathy for a man who has had a tricky couple of years and looked like he was getting back to his best. Then came the news that he had got stuck into a few too many beers and indulged in some loud drinking games which involved him punching his mates in the face if they couldn’t hold their ale. This being Henson, the suspicion immediately emerged that he broke his hand in making sharp contact with a friend’s jaw.
This maybe unfair but Henson is not a man who inspires a great deal of sympathy. Maybe this is because his obvious attention to his own appearance and rather surly demeanour does not sit comfortably with many rugby fans. I feel somewhat hypocritical saying that because I get irritated when people criticise Kevin Petersen for the same thing. But he has backed up his peacocking by consistently turning in effective performances and is undoubtedly a world class player. Henson has only spasmodically fulfilled the huge potential he showed early in his career.
Let us not forget that this is a player who won the IRB Young Player of the Year Award in 2001. While this is no guarantee of greatness, it is an award that has been the almost exclusive preserve of the Tri-Nations who are traditionally stronger at junior level. But despite this, Henson stood out. He took some time to break into the senior ranks and he had to wait for 3 years from his 2001 debut to establish himself in the team as he struggled to adapt to the demands of professional rugby. This was the first example of the extraordinary ebb and flow in his career.
In Henson’s first and to date only full season in the Wales team, they won the Grand Slam. Henson was the poster boy of the team, in spite of the fact that while he may have hit the penalty to beat England and thrown Mathew Tait around like a rag doll, he was not as influential as Stephen Jones, Dwayne Peel, Tom Shanklin and Ryan Jones. All seemed well and he seemed poised for a berth in the Lions test team in New Zealand alongside Brian O’Driscoll. The stage seemed set for him to put his stamp firmly upon the rugby world.
It was not to be. Henson struggled for form and was poorly treated by the Lion’s management. This included the use of a photo by Alastair Campbell to make it seem as though he was perfectly happy with Clive Woodward’s decision to omit him from the matchday 22. He was reinstated for the 2nd Test but had little effect and got injured. This was all very sad but once again it was rather hard to feel sorry for him. His morose demeanour gave the impression that he was a poor tourist and would not be the first to buy into the team ethic so crucial to any successful tour.
These suspicions were confirmed by the publication of his book after the tour in which he roundly criticised many team mates. This included his fellow countrymen, leading to a humiliating apology to the Wales squad. It could be argued here that Henson must have received poor advice but anyone involved in a team sport (other than football) surely knows that there is ground upon which you do not tread. Public criticism of team mates is certainly fenced off.
Since his return from New Zealand, little has gone right for Henson on the pitch. As his profile off the pitch has continued to escalate thanks to his relationship with Charlotte Church, with whom he has a child, his rugby career has stagnated. A strong return to action against Leicester after his Lions injury was blighted when he was banned for injudicious use of the elbow. Since then he has barely strung together a run of matches, restricted by a raft of injuries and suspensions. His star in the Welsh rugby firmament has been dimmed as James Hook has usurped him in his club team, the national team, and in the affections of the Welsh rugby public.
Henson clearly needs someone to give him the kind of guidance which currently seems to be absent if he is to fulfil his potential. That the Ospreys released a statement in the wake of the train incident stating that they believe Henson was led astray by rowdy friends and his only error was not to extricate himself when things went too far does not bode well. Sure. Because professional rugby players are always the shy, retiring ones in a social group at the mercy of the bigger boys and their whims. One hopes this is merely the public face put on by Ospreys.
Henson is a man of significant talent and has all the skills and physical attributes required for a modern inside centre. He possesses all the raw materials of one of his successors as IRB Young Player of the Year, Luke McAlister, but the contrasting nature of their current careers speaks volumes. The Kiwi, while he may have turned his back on the All Blacks for now, lights up every pitch upon which he sets foot and possesses a work ethic matched by few. Henson would do well to look in this direction for an example of how to approach the game and to show him what he should be currently be achieving. And Henson should look closer to home at Hook who has dealt with the unique spotlight placed upon every young Welsh hope so much better than he has himself.