Gavin Henson, Danny Cipriani and Rugby's Other Wasted Talent
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Rugby is no different from any other sport in that it has athletes who make the most of their natural abilities through hard work and dedication, and athletes who, for whatever reason, never realize their full potential.
Sometimes it can be down to misfortune—a serious injury, issues with selection, playing in a poor side. But other factors might also come into the equation; and the public is always interested when a supremely talented player gets distracted by the trappings of elite sport.
The following examples of wasted talent in rugby may not be quite so extreme as these two once-in-a-lifetime footballers, but each has—for their own reasons—failed to maximize their potential.
Feel free to let us know if there are any other players who should have been included on this list.
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Despite playing a key role in two Grand Slams and touring with the British & Irish Lions, Gavin Henson will mostly be remembered for his unpleasant off-field behaviour and inability to maintain a career that at one stage looked set to make him one of the best players of his generation.
At his best, Henson had everything, and Wales were clearly a much better side when he was in their back line. He played a key role in their 2005 and 2008 Grand Slams and was unfortunate not to win more than one cap on the difficult 2005 Lions tour to New Zealand.
But the 33-times capped Henson has struggled to stay out of the headlines, mostly for his antics off the pitch. His celebrity marriage to Welsh singer Charlotte Church guaranteed tabloid attention, while various alcohol-related incidents and a failure to get on with teammates cemented his reputation as a primadonna, one more concerned with his reality TV image than the tough demands of his sport.
Centre-cum-fly-half Henson established himself with Welsh side Ospreys before club-hopping between Saracens, Toulon, Cardiff Blues, London Welsh and current outfit Bath. His days at Bath looked numbered earlier this summer when he was caught on camera being knocked on conscious by a teammate following an altercation in a pub.
The fact that he was not tended to by teammates for several minutes after the incident suggests he has yet to win over the Bath dressing room.
At 31, Henson still has a year or two left in him to win back respect from players and fans alike. His rap sheet to date suggests he will waste that chance.
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After making his England debut in the 2008 Six Nations, Danny Cipriani appeared to have the rugby world at his feet. The then-21-year-old produced a magnificent display as England thumped Ireland 33-10; surely England had found the heir apparent for legend Jonny Wilkinson.
But even at that early stage his performance was sandwiched between two pieces of controversy. He was prevented from making his debut earlier in the tournament after being photographed leaving a nightclub at an inappropriate hour, and he then swore live on TV while being interviewed after the England victory.
Sadly these two incidents were a taste of things to come, as Cipriani continuously failed to follow the fine example set by teammates at Wasps, who at the time were the premier team in Europe.
Like Henson, Cipriani has a fondness for the limelight and also has dated a number of celebrities in his time. Like Henson, Cipriani has also struggled to win the approval of teammates and is no stranger to a firm right-hander.
After several successful years with Wasps, Cipriani moved to Super 15 side Melbourne Rebels in a bid to improve his game. His time in Australia was not without incident, and his off-field antics were not helped by glaring lapses in his on-field defense.
Cipriani is due to start his second campaign with Sale Sharks after a reasonable first season after returning from Australia. But still he was unable to avoid controversy and earlier this year was back in the headlines, this time for getting hit by a bus while on a night out with teammates.
He claims still to have ambitions to play for England, and, at 25, time is on his side.
But there are so many players ahead of him in the England ranking that it looks unlikely he will ever reclaim his place. In the meantime, he continues to be fodder for the British tabloids.
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On his day, Rupeni Caucaunibuca was the most devastating runner in world rugby. He was extremely fast and powerful, had a wicked step and a wide mid-drift that made him nigh impossible to stop in full flight.
But Caucau, as he was known, also had increasing difficulties producing “his day.” He may have scored a bucket-load of sensational tries in Super Rugby, the Top 14 and the 2003 World Cup, but his career was blighted by a series of disciplinary and weight issues.
In addition to receiving a ban for punching during the 2003 World Cup, Caucau is well known for his repeated failures to turn up for both club and country.
His liking for an easy-going lifestyle back in his native Fiji made him notoriously unreliable and resulted in several bans during a career in which he excelled for the Auckland Blues, Agen and Fiji.
It is difficult to imagine Caucau as anything but a great success when watching a highlight reel of his tries.
But it is also a shame when you consider how much better he might have been had he shown the application and dedication of many players far less talented than he is.
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Finding an adequate replacement in England’s midfield for World Cup winner Will Greenwood is a problem that continues to haunt the Red Rose to this day.
A number of players have been used to varying degrees of success, including Shane Geraghty, who is now back at London Irish after stints at Northampton and French club Brive.
Geraghty made his much-deserved England debut in 2007 when he came off the bench against France in the Six Nations. And he did not disappoint, producing a scintillating break from deep in his own half to set up a magnificent try.
Although he remained on England’s radar and toured with them in 2010, injury and a lack of playing time after his acrimonious move from Irish to Northampton were factors in Geraghty failing to fulfill his promise in the following years.
Geraghty returned to London Irish last year, and the 27-year-old still has ambitions to play for England again. We will see whether he still has the speed or talent to realize this aim.
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It is perhaps unfair to suggest a player known as “The King,” and regarded by many as one of the finest of all time, deserves to be included in this feature.
In terms of pure talent, the likes of Henson and Cipriani would not have been worthy to even tie the laces of a player who bestrode the world rugby stage in the 1960s and early 1970s.
The name Barry John is synonymous with the golden age of Welsh rugby and the 1971 British and Irish Lions, still the only Lions side to win a series in New Zealand. With scrum-half Gareth Edwards, John formed a half-back pairing that has yet to be matched.
John was the first rugby superstar, and the words "Edwards to John" are enough to conjure up images of rugby played at his very finest.
But just as John had the rugby world at his feet—quite literally if you were an opposing flanker—he decided to call it a day.
Aged just 27, he cited the pressures of fame and expectation for his retirement, though a wish to take advantage of commercial opportunities in what was an amateur era is thought to have played a part.
Whatever it was that made John hang up his boots, the reality is that the adoring Welsh public was deprived of a true legend of the game that was still playing at the peak of his powers.