The Enigma of Gavin Henson

The Mercurial Centre

Late on Sunday night, police were called to a disturbance on St Marys Street. On arrival at the Queen’s Vault Pub opposite the Millennium Stadium, the scene they discovered must have been amusing. A tired and emotional Gavin Henson was in the process of being escorted out of the pub by a far more sober Lee Bryne while Mike Phillips, not exactly a choir-boy himself, was apologising for Henson’s behaviour on the pub’s karaoke microphone.

Although both the pub and the police refused to provide details, St Marys Street has been thick with conflicting rumour and hearsay about what went on all week. Whatever the details of Henson and co’s Sunday night, one thing is clear. Many more antics like this could seriously derail Henson’s career. Henson, along with Andy Powell, Mike Phillips, Lee Bryne, Rhys Thomas and Jonathan Thomas, admitted to “varying degrees of regrettable conduct” and received a warning from the Welsh Rugby Union.

A statement on the WRU’s official website said:

“Their presence in the city centre exposed them to situations where their conduct was under close scrutiny and their behaviour should have reflected that. They have all been warned that their various levels of involvement in events which took place on Sunday will be taken into account in future if they are party to any incidents where misconduct is apparent.”

Henson, however, was particularly singled out and has since issued a public apology to “anyone member of the public he offended” for his part in that wild evening.

This is the latest in a string of controversial incidents Henson has got himself into. Barely a year ago, he was charged with “disorderly conduct” after all sorts of alleged unpleasantness on a train returning from London after he appeared for The Ospreys against Harlequins in the EDF Cup. Thankfully for him, the Crown Prosecution Service dropped all charges.

The stereotypical Welsh rugby playerThe former glamour boy of Welsh rugby is nothing but a complex individual and, over the years, he has developed a love-hate relationship with the own fans. His momentous displays in the 2005 and 2008 Grand Slams, in which he was an ever present, saw him hailed as the embodiment of Welsh rugby with a body of oak and hands of silk.

At other times, when he has underperformed and appeared sullen and disinterested, he has been dismissed as a perma-tanned prima donna who plays for himself. After one memorably poor performance, one concerned fan put a brick through Henson’s face on a billboard outside the stadium.

Whether he likes it or not, Henson’s performances on the rugby pitch will forever be associated with his public persona. Many people expect him to adorn the frontcover of Hello! with his celebrity wife as much as covering the back pages of the newspapers.

More worryingly for Henson though, is that its now been a year since he last played for Wales. Unlike Powell, Bryne and Phillips, Henson did not play in the win against England and still faces a battle for fitness before he can play against France in Paris. Henson was undoubtedly immense for Wales in last years Grand Slam victory.

Warren Gatland and, in particular, Shaun Edwards have done wonders for his game. They forced him to master a specific position, inside centre, and combined his delicate distribution and natural eye for a running angle with steely defence and disciplined positioning.

However well Jamie Roberts played the position on Saturday with the barnstorming Tom Shanklin outside him, Wales still lacked seemed to lack a cutting edge. Joe Worsley’s successful dual with Roberts in the centre of the pitch revealed Wales’s game plan as narrow and one-dimensional. It needs to be remembered that without the steady stream of penalties, Wales would have been struggling to overcome England.

As much as Henson needs Wales, Wales need him. He offers skill and subtly to the inside centre position, and his quick hands mean that he can be used as an auxiliary stand off, leaving Roberts to hit defenders further away from the pack.

If Henson and Roberts are both fit and on form, it is difficult to think of a better centre pairing in world rugby. But therein lies the problem. Henson has 28 caps, but should be well past the 50 mark by now. He has missed two world cups, both through injury. Due to his increasingly consistent injury problems, and his increasingly inconsistent ability to handle his beer, the prospect of him playing a key part in this year’s push for the Grand Slam, and the ensuing Lion’s Tour, are becoming less and less likely.

The hard truth is he has slipped down the pecking order. As far as the Welsh fans are concerned, it is fellow revellers Mike Phillips, Lee Bryne and Andy Powell who are the poster boys off the pitch and go-to men on it.

As he approaches his 27 birthday, he needs to deliver a timely reminder of why he was once seen as the embodiment of Welsh rugby, rather than a jack the lad with a pretty girlfriend and plenty of potential.

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England and Wales plan a combined rugby division.

Egg Chasing over the Severn

As the teams were warming up on the pitch, discussions were taking place in a corporate box high up in the Gods of the Millennium Stadium to try and make the sight of Wales and England’s finest locking horns become a weekly spectacle.

David Moffett, the interim chief executive of Regional Rugby Wales and Mark McAfferty, the chief executive of England’s Premier Rugby, met over the weekend to discuss a radical plan to revamp the current EDF Energy Cup, replacing it with an Anglo-Welsh league encompassing teams from the top two tiers of Welsh and English club rugby.

The proposal is still in its early stages, and the next step will be to send details of the meetings to clubs in the Guiness Premiership, all four Welsh regions, the Welsh Premiership and England’s first division. There is an expectancy, however, that the plan will be embraced wholeheartedly.

A resurgent national Welsh team, who beat England this weekend and are on a course for a second Grand Slam, has sparked international interest in Welsh rugby. As an Anglo-Welsh league will revive age old rivalries between Cardiff Blues, the Ospreys and teams such as Bath, Leicester and Gloucester, it is hoped plenty of revenue will be made available for teams on both sides of the border.

The credit crunch, as ever, has played its part. An ever-widening gulf of wealth between the Welsh, English and French leagues is starting to have wide implications. With the newfound strength of the Euro and the lack of a salary cap in the Top 14 division, the cash-rich French are in an unprecedented position of power. It seems increasingly likely that a raft of English players will leave their clubs to play across the Channel this Summer.

As I write, the Beeb has just announced that senior England players such James Haskell and Tom Palmer have both agreed to leave Wasps, the club that bought him through their academy, to play for Stade Francais at the end of the Summer. They have been offered contracts that could treble their existing salary. In addition, England international centre Ricky Flutey, who is also a Wasps James Haskell, one of the brightest stars of Englsih Rugby, is departing for Parisplayer, has just signed for French club Brive. He joins current England fly-half Andy Goode and former internationals Steve Thompson and Ben Cohen. Jonny Wilkinson, the divine son with a voodoo doll, may also swap the delights of Tyneside for the depths of Paris.

Martin Johnson must be sweating. He fought long and hard with the RFU to ensure players were released for their clubs for pre-international training sessions. It was a pre-condition to his appointment. If all his players go to France, he will have to go to the Fédération Française de Rugby cap in hand or battlegear on. The 100 year war could be reprised.

Bad for the English then, and really bad for Wasps, but how will the repercussions be felt in Welsh rugby?

Partly because of the success of the national side, and partly because the Guiness Premiership still has superior financial clout over the Magners League, Welsh players are now very much on the radar. Sale and Northampton, in particular, have been sounding out the availability of several Cardiff Blues players, most notably Andy Powell and the Robinson brothers. More worryingly, Leicester have a growing determination to see Dai Young as their next coach, which may lead to an exodus of Blues joining him at Welford Road. What better way of celebrating the start of a new season than parading a trophy signing of Leigh Halfpenny or Gethin Jenkins?

Warren Gatland’s policy of only picking players based in Wales may be a far-sighted approach, and Powell cited it as a central reason as to why he signed his new contract with the Blues. There is, however, little sign of the interest abating across the border.

Creating an Anglo-Welsh league, with the extra revenue it promises, could be seen as a proactive attempt by both the Welsh and English Unions to ensure home-grown English talent isn’t lured to France, and home-grown Welsh talent isn’t lured to England. Let us hope it works.

Lions Tour of South Africa: The Scrum-Half Question.

Nine Lives

The Welsh ascendancy is over. With a hell-for-leather victory over England in Cardiff this weekend Welsh rugby can, for the first time in a generation, call itself the dominant force of these Isles.

But it was also the biggest stage to date for a host of players to state their case for inclusion in the first 15 when the British and Irish Lions lock horns with South Africa at ABSA Park in Durban on June 20. Judging by this weekend, a host of the Wales players can start privately calling themselves a Lion.

Whilst competition has increased in some positions and resided in others, there is none more open and subject to speculation than the position of scrum-half.

Whoever is chosen, the biggest challenge of their career awaits them. If the Lions are to succeed they will have to find somebody to can compete with the standard-bearer of the scrum half position- Fourie Du Preez.

Fourie Du Preez during the World Cup Final 2007

Throughout South Africa’s 2007 World Cup triumph, Du Preez was arguably a more influential figure than Butch James, South Africa’s fly-half. As well as tigerish defence, cheetah-like pace and hyena-like trickery, he possesses a bullet for a pass, fizzes with energy and struts around the base of the pack with an authority bordering on arrogance.

One moment in the World Cup Final embodied Du Preez’s tournament. Facing Andy Gomarsall, he shaped for a box kick at the base of a ruck. As Gomarsall tried to charge him down, he flicked the ball from his one outstretched arm to the other, spun like a ballerina and broke into the vacated space, causing pandemonium in the English defence. It was a breathtakingly audacious and fluently executed exhibition of skill and reminded everyone why they call it a “dummy.”

The good news is Lion’s Coach Ian McGeechan is spoilt for choice at scrum half. There are likely to be three seats on the plane, and at least eight players haven’t as yet made additional holiday plans.

Mike Blair, a nominee for IRB International Player of the Year in 2008 and Scottish captain, began as the frontrunner for one of those spaces before the Six Nations kicked off, although he hasn’t played as well as he would have liked in the opening two games. The relative Irish newcomer Tomas O’Leary impressed in Ireland’s victory over Italy with his alertness and decision-making, and has had a good season playing for Munster. In some quarters, he is being talked of as a shoe-in despite lacking the big game experience necessary for the Lions.

Mike Phillips

However, Saturday’s game at the Millennium stadium showcased the two contenders most likely to claim the jersey and face the Boks- Mike Phillips and Harry Ellis.

After missing so much of last season, Phillips has done remarkably well to put himself back in contention. Standing at more than 6 ft tall, the Osprey is an atypical scrum-half with a big personality. He tackles like a back-row, and his physical presence and imposing character can unsettle opponents.

He is also a dynamic carrier of the ball (he ran with the ball more times than any other player apart from his captain Martyn Williams on Saturday), has mastered the art of the offload and can definitely shift. Inevitably due to his size, he lacks pace from a standing start and could release the ball quicker in the pass. Phillips is undoubtedly a graceful player who can turn matches when on song, but he may be the rugby equivalent of Dimitar Berbatov. There is a fine line between graceful and languorous.

Harry EllisHarry Ellis is a far more classical scrum-half. Small and compact with a low centre of gravity, he hits the gaps with lightning acceleration. He has a lovely, fluid running style, keeps the ball in two hands and his head up while he looks for support runners. Unlike other contenders, his passing is always accurate and his box kicks are second to none. He has had a stop-start international career plagued with injuries and false dawns, but has occasionally played like a world-beater. If he gets an extended run in the side, he could be the first player since Matt Dawson to lay claim to England’s scrum half position.

There was precious little to choose between them over the weekend. Phillips has undoubted presence, carrying ability and revelled in the close quarter exchanges, but his decision making wasn’t always exemplary.

Ellis didn’t make as many breaks as he would have liked, but when he did he was incisive. He managed to keep his own in a highly physical game and make a real nuisance of himself. He may not have the potential destructive powers of Phillips, but he is a better decision maker and a bigger leader.

If the Lions have any chance of overwhelming South Africa they must disturb the link between their domineering forwards and backs, and that means neutralising Du Preez. To do that, they will need a scrum-half in the form of his life, with the aggression required to play Du Preez at his own game, the nous to try the unexpected and the guile to pull it off. It is a position so reliant on instinct and confidence that game-time, consistent selection and faith from the management is required.

McGeechan, therefore, will need to make a choice and back that choice. It will mean disappointing worthy players, and resisting calls to chop and change as soon as the chosen player makes a mistake or shows signs of subservience. As much as anything, it will be a serious test of McGeechan’s man management skills.

For my money, I don’t think he trusts Blair, and I don’t think he will be able to make a decision between Ellis and Phillips’ contrasting skill sets. He will start with Phillips, who is the more raw of the two, and then give Ellis a run at the business end of the tour.

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