Gavin Henson is finally fit and excited to make Exiles debut
Foremost among the many assumptions ahead of the start of this domestic campaign was that newly promoted London Welsh could not possibly win a game without Gavin Henson performing like the world-beater he looked like being before his career disappeared down the celebrity plughole. So much for assumption.
The Exiles have already nailed two victories and generally surprised the hell out of everyone, despite losing the "orange one" to injury in a pre-season friendly.
When they meet Saracens at the Kassam Stadium in Oxford tomorrow, Henson will finally bring his undeniably blinding skills – along with his undeniably blinding tan – to the Premiership party. He replaces Gordon Ross at outside-half and even if his distribution is a little rusty, he should at least make a significant impact in a couple of important areas: defence being one of them, goal-kicking being the other.
Rather like Danny Cipriani, a fellow lost talent who tends to rediscover the best of himself when he has the former England boss Brian Ashton in his ear, Henson responds most positively to one particular coach – in his case, the inspirational Lyn Jones, with whom he worked productively at Ospreys before the 2005 Lions tour of New Zealand. It was Jones's presence at London Welsh that persuaded Henson to take one last shot at professional club rugby after calamitous flirtations with Saracens, Toulon and Cardiff Blues, and it is Jones who believes most strongly that this arrangement can work.
Henson suffered a cheekbone fracture while playing against Scarlets in late August and was not expected to feature in the Exiles' senior side until the Amlin Challenge Cup meeting with the Parisian club Stade Français in a week's time. "The injury was disappointing and frustrating," said the outside-half, who will be partnered by the rather less celebrated Tyson Keats tomorrow. "However, the boys have done really well in the first five games and I cannot wait to start playing my part with the rest of the team."
The chances of London Welsh taking so much as a losing bonus point out of a side as hard-bitten as Saracens would have seemed outrageously fanciful as recently as a month ago, but even if Henson's return proves fruitless, the Exiles will be in a better than expected place after the first tranche of Premiership fixtures. Jones can even rest some of his form players over the forthcoming European fortnight in preparation for the autumn international window.
Over the last decade, teams have needed something in the region of 34 points to avoid relegation. London Welsh are slightly ahead of the game, arithmetically speaking, but a rough spell between now and Christmas would leave them in the perilous position of requiring a grandstand finish from a fast-tiring squad. Better to strike while the iron is hot. Over to you, Gav.
Premiership: Weekend team news
Exeter v Harlequins
Sentiment is in short supply in Devon, where two senior forwards, the captain Tom Hayes and the flanker James Scaysbrook, find themselves rested after 49 consecutive Premiership starts. Wallaby lock Dean Mumm makes his debut, while Quins travel in "risk" mode with Danny Care and Joe Marler on the bench.
Gloucester v Bath
Kingsholm's sandpaper-voiced choristers will be in full voice in the hope that Freddie Burns, the form outside-half in the country, can put one over the visitors from his home city. Bath have lost their skipper Stuart Hooper to injury; Gloucester have the All Black scrum-half Jimmy Cowan on the bench.
London Irish v Northampton
The table-topping visitors may be without their outstanding hooker Dylan Hartley, but they think an awful lot of the youngster Mike Haywood, who fills in today. Irish, in dire need of answers after a run of wretched performances, shift Steven Shingler to full-back and the multi-tasking Matt Garvey to the back row.
London Welsh v Saracens
Leaving aside the Gavin Henson fandango, the notable news from the Exiles is that Mike Denbee, a low-profile flanker whose name may yet end up in lights, is back from injury. Saracens have some intriguing combinations: Charlie Hodgson and Owen Farrell in midfield, Will Fraser and Andy Saull on the flanks.
Wasps v Worcester
An important game for the Londoners, who started the campaign in the full flush of optimism but are finding victories hard to come by. Their captain Hugo Southwell returns, but Worcester have been scoring unusually heavily and know what it is to win at Adams Park.
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