When Gavin Henson made his Welsh debut in 2001, barely 19 years of age, it appeared that a new star of Welsh rugby had been born and that he would be the centrepiece of a line of backs that would re-energise the sport and dominate Rugby Union in the Northern hemisphere for a decade.
He picked up the International Rugby Board’s Young Player of the Year that same season.
The future looked bright for the lad from Pencoed.
But although he confirmed his talent with starring roles in two Welsh Grand Slam teams, in 2005 and 2008, Henson has become more renowned for his off-field exploits than his talent on the field.
By the end of 2005, injuries and suspensions were regularly preventing Henson appearing for his regional side Ospreys and his comments in his autobiography about other players and his experience of the Lions tour left him a figure of some ridicule.
In addition, his high-profile relationship with singer Charlotte Church was attracting ever-more media interest.
In 2007, Henson was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, although the charges were later dropped, and in 2009 he was cautioned by police in relation to an alleged assault.
In 2010, Henson spent more time in front of the cameras with appearances on Strictly Come Dancing and 71 Degrees North, but shrugged off rumours of a retirement. He was released from his contract with Ospreys to play for English side Saracens, but he made just four appearances before being released once more.
He has since signed a contract to play for French side Toulon, alongside English stars Johnny Wilkinson and Paul Sackey.
Yet even across the channel, Henson has failed to keep himself out of trouble. Just this week, he has been suspended by the French club for a breach of the club’s code of discipline, which will see Henson miss the match against Perpignan.
Before this, Wales assistant coach Rob Howley had indicated that even with a limited amount of playing time, Henson could find himself competing for a place in the squad for this autumn’s Rugby World Cup.
Questions have to be raised about Henson’s attitude towards the game and his teammates, his likely longevity and durability to sustain performances during the tournament and his match fitness, given his recent problems.
Former Wales captain Gareth Thomas spoke out on BBC Radio Five Live yesterday evening, saying that Henson should look back and regret the opportunities he’s had that he has not taken, that he should have been a more positive role model for the game and that it was becoming tedious to have to try and defend Henson and his actions.
Thomas noted that Henson seemed to have a problem when he’d been drinking, and that it should not be used as an excuse for his behaviour, something that Thomas himself knows well about, having been found guilty of affray in a French court after a brawl in 2002.
The former Welsh skipper, who now plays Rugby League for Welsh side Crusaders, appropriately suggested that Henson was now “drinking in the last chance saloon” and that despite his performances for the National team across his 31-cap career, he would be a risk to even consider for the World Cup.
Meanwhile, former Wales wing Adrian Hadley suggested that Henson’s career might be on the line should Toulon decide he is not worth the aggravation he is causing.
Hadley opined that it would be difficult for Henson to find another club willing to take him on if Toulon release him, a possible scenario when Henson meets coach Philippe Saint-Andre for discussions next week.
Hadley commented that the timing was not good for Henson because of the late stage of the season and the limited number of games he would have to get fully match fit, and said that “he may well have lost it for the World Cup.”
Hadley was doubtful that Henson would ever get himself sorted out, noting that “he’s pushed the self-destruct button” and that it was “the top three inches that lets him down all the time.”
If this is the end of the line for Gavin Henson, it has been a wild and bumpy ride. His skill on the field and success with the Welsh National side has been overshadowed by his personal relationships and misdemeanours off it.
It comes at a time when Rugby Union is in the spotlight for the wrong reasons, with Wasps forwards Andy Powell and Tim Payne also being suspended pending an investigation into an incident this week that warranted investigation by the violent crime unit of Fulham and Hammersmith police.
It is sad that the headlines being made by Rugby Union in a World Cup year are of the off-field and negative type, but this seems to have been the MO for Henson throughout his career.
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