Bath warning to Gavin Henson: One more drink and you're sacked
Celebrity recruit given second chance following latest incident after team-mates' backing
Gavin Henson's first drinking session with his new club-mates at Bath ended with a bunch of fives, decisively delivered by the frank and forthright back-row forward Carl Fearns, and a squillion cringingly embarrassing reruns of footage posted on the internet before the Welshman hit the floor. His second drinking session? There won't be one. The celebrity midfielder has been told in no uncertain terms that he must stay dry or look for alternative employment.
"My heart did sink when it happened," confessed Mike Ford, the former England defence strategist who will be picking the Bath team this season after his promotion to the head coach's position at the Recreation Ground a few weeks ago.
"I worked with Gavin on the Lions tour of New Zealand in 2005 and found him a really nice lad – shy, hard-working and very committed to his rugby. When we were reacquainted earlier in the summer, he struck me as being exactly the same. So yes, the incident was pretty disappointing. Basically he knows he can't be found with another drink in his hand."
According to Ford, the input from Henson's colleagues convinced the management to keep faith and stand by the new recruit. "A massive point in all this was what the players felt about it, and they decided as a group that they wanted to help Gavin become a part of things here," he said.
"We have a couple of other out-and-out No 10s available to us, but they're aged 20 and 21. The need for a third, experienced No 10 was obvious, so we went for Gavin, who was immediately available and had shown at London Welsh last season that he could still perform at a high level. I think we all want it to work out."
One of those young outside-halves is Tom Heathcote, already capped by Scotland despite his tender years. The other? Now, there's a funny thing. George Ford, spoken of as a midfield playmaker of international quality since he was in rugby nappies, happens to be the head coach's son.
Every union-following cynic in the world will think the same thing the moment the youngster is selected ahead of Heathcote, who played some excellent stuff last season, and Henson, whose recovery from a rib injury (not to mention a painful jawbone and a bruised ego) means he is likely to turn out in Bath's final pre-season friendly against Ospreys, his old club, on Friday night.
"I have concerns about it, naturally," Ford Snr acknowledged, "but we've all talked it through – myself and George; myself, George and his mum; myself, George and Bruce Craig [the Bath owner]; myself and the rest of the coaching staff. We've put things in place that we think will protect the club from any charges of nepotism, and I believe we're all comfortable with the situation.
"I know some people will say things even if we win five or six on the bounce with George in the side, but I can't control that," he added. "In the end, it's important to point out that he's a bloody good player."
A number of players fitting that description have joined Bath over the summer, most notably the London Irish quartet of Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson, Matt Garvey and the bright young back-row prospect David Sisi. Suddenly, Ford finds himself presiding over a squad of his own design and that of the director of rugby, Gary Gold, rather than one that they inherited from the previous regime. As a consequence, great things are expected.
There are, however, words of warning from the head coach. "We'll improve massively from where we were last season," he predicted, "but as I've said to the squad, this is not the big club it was back in the 1980s and '90s, when Bath were winning everything. When I asked these players to show me their medals, they couldn't. If you want to be special in this game, you have to earn it."
Stuart Hooper, the former Saracens and Leeds lock, will be club captain once again this season, although the outstanding Springbok flanker Francois Louw will also take on a prominent leadership role when he returns from international duty in the southern hemisphere's Rugby Championship.
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