Holding out for Henson
July 20, 2010
Gavin Henson's return has become prime tabloid fodder © Getty Images
It was Tim Glover, a Neath-born writer much missed by press colleagues since his departure from the Independent on Sunday last year, who summed up the ambivalence felt by many rugby journalists in recent years about what the job has become. He was talking, at some point in the late 1990s, to one of the main protagonists in the RFU's long running civil war.
The official confided some detail of the latest bust-up to Tim, adding the words, "That'll be a good story for you." As Tim said afterwards: "It was, but this isn't what I came into sports journalism to do. I want to be writing about great rugby and great matches, not the infighting of officialdom."
Over the past few years, it has been hard to avoid the same feelings when it comes to Gavin Henson. He has been an unfailing source of news, but not always of the sort that you want to be writing. As he apparently contemplates a return to playing, that feeling is stronger than ever.
I really don't want to be reading - still less writing - about his divorce, his yacht or his possible participation in this or that game or reality show. I only want to know when he resumes training, or announces that he is not coming back. The rest is window-dressing.
This is not to criticise Henson, for whom I continue to feel considerable sympathy. What he - or any other rugby player - does off the field is his own concern, provided that it does not detract from his performance on it.
As with the not entirely dissimilar David Beckham there is a strong argument that Henson's lifestyle has been far more of a distraction to journalists than it ever was to him. The odd unattractive moment has been attributable not to rock-star entitlement but getting hammered with his mates, which hardly makes him unique among rugby players.
Nor has he behaved badly over the past year. It is rather to his credit that, not feeling up to playing, he took unpaid leave. He might have malingered and continued to claim a salary. Critics might point out that he hardly needed the money, but I can't say that I've noticed that wealthy people are less keen than the rest of us to add a bit more to their funds.
It would be really good to see him back. As Warren Gatland continues to recognise, Wales would still benefit from his return. Those all-round footballing skills, the ability to make a break, to rifle a ball 60 metres and to play 12, 13 or 15 would be invaluable. It isn't a fluke that the two full seasons he played in the Six Nations were also the two when Wales won the Grand Slam. He certainly did not do it by himself, but his contribution - probably greater when it was less obvious in 2008 - was immense.
The Ospreys too would benefit as they aim to make a real impact in the Heineken Cup. Which is not to say that franchise or country should count on his returning. The realistic bet for both is to assume that he isn't coming back, plan accordingly and treat any reappearance as a bonus.
If there is reason to hope from a Welsh or Ospreys perspective, there is also the question of how it all affects Henson. We know from his autobiography that, contrary to his somewhat detached appearance, he is passionately attached to the game and has been driven by an ambition to be regarded among Wales's great players.
To have played his last serious rugby at 27 and never to have appeared at a World Cup would be to leave ambitions - and much potential - unfulfilled. He is still young enough to make a comeback and, provided mind and body return refreshed rather than enfeebled by his long sabbatical, to make a serious pitch for a place at both next year's Six Nations and the World Cup.
The odds may be against him. Not least of the challenges would be coping with the sheer weight of media attention, alert not only to his on-field performances but any off-field activity not strictly related to rugby. But it would be a desperate shame if it all ended here. It seems unlikely that he'd ever find something else he does as well as he plays rugby - not because he has not got other talents, but because few of us have the ability to do anything as well as Gavin Henson is capable of playing rugby.
Have Barry John and tennis player Bjorn Borg - who quit brilliant careers at much the same age because they found the stresses unbearable, albeit both with more of their potential achieved - lived a happier or more fulfilling life because of their premature retirements?
If he does go, we need to accept that it is his choice. We must also learn to treat a player whose career has ended essentially for psychological reasons with the same sympathy as one, like the unlucky Michael Owen, who has been forced out by injury. The hope remains, though, that it does not come to that.
With the Lions' tour to Australia fast-approaching, ESPN's Austin Healey and Mark Durden-Smith sat down to share their memories of the 2001 trip Down Under
Ask John answers questions on the Leopards' tour to Italy in 1974, brotherly Test sides, Pat McGrath, England's games against the Barbarians and Jacques Brunel
"We were only five metres away in the last Test of getting that try and with Jonny's inevitable conversion, we'd have won it." Tom Hamilton talks to Lions fullback Matt Perry