Gavin Henson has been both the golden boy, and the bad boy, of Welsh rugby for some time now. In 2001, he was named IRB International Young Player of the Year and according to some news reports, he beat a certain Dan Carter to the award.
Now, however, he has been sacked by the Cardiff Blues after drinking until the early hours following an away match in Glasgow. A couple of hours after leaving a nightclub, he continued drinking on the plane home where his disruptive behaviour drew complaints and a six month flying ban from the airline.
Even his fiercest critics don’t deny that Henson is a naturally gifted rugby player. On form, he can tackle hard, pass sweetly, kick prodigiously and ghost through defences. On the two occasions he completed Six Nations campaigns, Wales won Grand Slams.
He was an obvious selection for the British and Irish Lions in 2005 but reacted poorly when Clive Woodward chose not to pair him with Brian O’Driscoll for the first Test. Injury then took him out of contention for the remaining Tests.
Later in 2005, he released “My Grand Slam Year”, in which he criticised some of his Wales and Lions team mates. He was obliged to apologize.
Other Welsh players have found themelves in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. Scrum half Mike Phillips has twice been involved in late night scuffles in Cardiff, the second getting him banned for a time for the national squad.
Like Henson, he was also involved in a high profile celebrity relationship. And yet Phillips is winning plaudits for his play while Henson seems to be out in the cold.
A number of people have supported Henson when he has found himself into hot water. The general impression seems to be that he is a decent bloke but not especially bright. In particular, he doesn’t hold his drink well.
Signed on a short-term contract to Toulon in February last year, he impressed his team mates with his work ethic in training, and his performances on the field, but managed to get into a drunken fight with them on a night out. He was suspended, and then reinstated following apologies, but released shortly afterwards.
Henson has been infuriating. It says something about a player that he can have two Grand Slams to his name along with a Lions tour, and yet still stand as one of the game’s great wastes of talent.
His previous indiscretions have brought widespread condemnation but, this time, there is also a tinge of sadness that we may have seen the final chapter in his career.
Henson decided to take a year off in the 2010 season and many thought that he had fallen out of love with game and would not return. He did, however, and made clear he had ambitions to be named in Warren Gatland’s World Cup squad.
Despite exiting Toulon under a cloud, he was included in the initial 45-man selection and appeared in warm-up matches against England. He dislocated his wrist, however, and dropped out of contention. It seemed his international career might be over.
Any yet Gatland still did not close the door. The Welsh manager knows a motivated Henson was an effective player who marshalled his team’s defence during those two Grand Slam campaigns.
In January, he named Henson to his 35-man SIx Nations squad. This raised eyebrows in some quarters since it was feared that the man could become a distraction. As it turns out, Henson was a peripheral figure and didn’t feature in the tournament at all.
There was still a chance that he could put together a run of matches for his club to be included in the squad to tour Australia but now he has no team. There were already questions over his commitment to the sport after continuing his TV appearances and even being linked to a film role.
And yet the door still may not be completely closed. It has just been revealed that Wales and Lions centre Jamie Roberts will miss the tour to Australia with a knee injury. There are other alternatives for Wales at centre: Scott Williams came on to score the winning try against England while James Hook has plenty of experience there.
It’s a great irony, though, that news of the vacancy in the Test line-up should come so soon after Henson has seemingly lost his chance to show his value.
There are also those who believe Cardiff Blues has been heavy-handed in ending his contract. Henson issued an immediate apology for his behaviour but that didn’t save him. Cardiff has, however, reprieved other players who have even been arrested for their actions.
There is a feeling that the club’s other problems may have played a part in their decision to part company with him. His New Zealand team mate Casey Laulala initially tweeted “It wasn’t bad at all. Been blown out of proportion. Club are just amateurs dealing with things”. The tweet was later deleted.
Cardiff and Wales captain Sam Warburton has defended his club’s decision, pointing out that they had warned all players about what was expected of them on and off the pitch.
He was also quick to add that Henson still has what it takes, “Having watched him in training he is one of the most gifted players I have ever seen. I am only 23, and still inexperienced, but when he has the ball he is just such a classy player, an incredible talent.”
The main Welsh news portal, Walesonline, has a poll up asking whether the public feels Cardiff did the right thing in cutting Gaving Henson adrift. There’s no better indication of how he polarizes the nation than the current results: 49.9 percent say yes while 50.1 percent say no.
If Henson is to be in the running for a spot on the tour to Australia – and many clearly hope Gatland isn’t considering the option – then he’ll need some rugby under his belt before Wales play the Barbarians in a tour warm-up. This may not be easy to find given the baggage he carries with him.
Henson has probably burned his bridges with the Welsh regions while his stints in England and France didn’t go especially well. There’s speculation he might look for a short term slot in a Super rugby franchise but who would want him for a few matches?
If Henson is looking for a last shot at redemption, his options seem to be limited.