The balance of rugby power in the capital shifted a little more towards Saracens yesterday – and a little further away from Wasps, once the undisputed heavyweight champions of the sport in north London – as two major figures of the modern game, the celebrity midfielder Gavin Henson and the down-to-earth prop Phil Vickery, embarked on very different paths. Henson surfaced at Sarries to pledge his immediate future to the club as a means of rebuilding his broken career. Vickery, meanwhile, consigned his own career to the past tense, having seen it fractured by injury once too often.
Henson is unlikely to play Premiership rugby until he stops prancing round the BBC ballroom in a sequined suit – "I'm training six hours a day for 'Strictly Come Dancing' and while it's not that physical, it's mentally tiring," said the Welshman – but he has one eye firmly fixed on next year's World Cup, and if he can make a splash ahead of the Six Nations Championship, which begins in February, he will fancy his chances of an early return to the international arena. "If I was playing well and on top of my game, it would be hard for them to leave me out," he remarked.
Stranded in a sporting exile of his own choosing – Henson took unpaid leave from the Swansea-based Ospreys 19 months ago and has not played since – he saw a brilliant future disappearing behind him. "I wouldn't have done 'Strictly' if a club had come in for me in July or August," he said. "I hadn't earned any money for 15 months by that stage, and everyone has to earn. 'Strictly' became my commitment and my priority, and I'll try to fit training in and around it. When it ends, I'll be able to play straight away.
"I'd like to think the best is yet to come. I've done all right with my rugby in the past, but I think I can play the game a lot better. I want to be a big name, to be regarded as a great player. I'm 28 now and I think I can play for another eight or 10 years. I want to win things. I want every honour there is."
Vickery managed to do just that. He tasted World Cup and Six Nations glory with England and won Heineken Cup and Premiership titles with Wasps. He toured twice with the Lions: in 2001 to Australia, when he was in his pomp as a new-age front-rower; and again last year, when he salvaged his reputation from the wreckage of a calamitous first Test against South Africa in Durban by turning in a wonderful performance against the same opponents in Johannesburg.
Unfortunately, he also picked up injuries. Dozens of them, some extremely serious. He underwent three bouts of career-saving surgery on his back and another on his neck, fracturing an eye socket for good measure. Last month, he suffered another neck problem while playing against Gloucester, his old club, and after chewing the fat with the neurosurgeon Richard Nelson, decided to pack it in while the decision was still his to make.
"It's not a nice feeling: I'm a sportsman and this feels like admitting defeat," said the 34-year-old Cornishman, who led England to the World Cup final in 2007 and had the decency to express his disgust at the subsequent treatment of the man who appointed him to the captaincy, Brian Ashton. "It's a horrible way to go, but I have faith in my medical advisers, who have been nothing but honest with me. When they say enough is enough, you have to listen."
Brendan Venter, the Saracens director of rugby who twice found himself bathing in piping hot disciplinary water last season, is about to take another dip. The South African's public critique of the French referee Christophe Berdos after the recent Heineken Cup defeat by Leinster at Wembley has resulted in a citing for misconduct, and he must answer the charge at a hearing in Dublin next week.
He will not be alone. His opposite number at Bayonne, Christian Gajan, has been accused of committing a similar sin following an Amlin Challenge Cup game against Connacht, while the entire Montpellier club are in trouble for failing to register a number of leading players – including French international pair Francois Trinh-Duc and Fulgence Ouedraogo – at the start of the tournament.Reuse content