Henson is back in a Wales shirt but no closer to a return to action
If anyone still gave a tinker's cuss whether Gavin Henson might be seen in a Wales shirt again, they were given their answer yesterday when the poor lost soul of the Red Dragon game reappeared, as if by magic, as the poster-boy of a marketing campaign to promote a new, heavily-sponsored kit deal. The question that stayed unanswered was whether the Grand Slam-winning midfielder would actually play again. On this subject, his thoughts remained almost as impenetrable as his fake tan.
It is now more than a year since Henson began his self-imposed exile from the sport – he has been on unpaid leave from Ospreys since last summer – and while he has recently been heard talking about playing at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, his television commitments with the BBC will make it extremely difficult for him to return to professional rugby this side of Christmas. The 28-year-old centre will spend the next few weeks twinkle-toeing his way round the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom, and while this may be considered good exercise, it does not mean a fat lot when it comes to handling Ma'a Nonu or Mathieu Bastareaud in the heat of battle.
Especially cringeworthy was the Welsh Rugby Union's decision to quote Henson saying: "When the WRU asked me to be one of the first to put on the new kit... I had no hesitation. As a passionate Welshman, I have always felt a great sense of pride whenever I have had the privilege of being able to wear the national jersey, and this occasion was no different." Exasperated members of the sporting public who gave up on the celebrity centre long ago could be heard spluttering loudly into their pint glasses.
While Henson is still theoretically an Osprey, albeit a wholly disinterested one, he has recently been linked with two Premiership clubs, Wasps and Harlequins. The latter dismissed any notion that they might bring the Lions midfielder to the Stoop, but the former champions have not publicly rejected the idea. Significantly, Shaun Edwards is a member of the Wasps coaching staff, as well as the Wales one.
It is true to say that Warren Gatland, the head coach of Wales, would give his eye teeth to have a fit, focused, properly motivated Henson back in his midfield: the man is, after all, among the more gifted players of his generation. He has baggage, though, and now he can wear the jersey of his dreams without having to tackle anyone, would any amount of money tempt him back?
Over in New Zealand, structural engineers have completed their checks on the new Lancaster Park stadium in Christchurch and declared it unaffected by the heavy earthquake that struck the city at the weekend. England, Scotland, Australia and Argentina are all listed to play pool matches at the venue, which will also host two quarter-finals. The organisers' relief at yesterday's clean bill of health was palpable.
They are more concerned about the building of a new stadium in Dunedin, where England will play a pool match against the winner of November's repechage play-off between Romania and Uruguay. "There has been a big spend by New Zealand on new facilities and we're pretty much on top of things," said Martin Snedden, the tournament's chief executive. "Dunedin is the issue. It will be a fully enclosed stadium with a roof, and it is not scheduled for completion until five weeks before the competition begins. The roof is the big challenge, and work on that begins soon. If there are problems, we'll be a little concerned about meeting the deadline. At least we still have the old Carisbrook stadium as a stand-by."
Tickets for individual matches were going on sale today after a spell of brisk block-booking business. "Of the 1.65m tickets available across all games, we've already sold 500,000," Snedden said. "Twenty per cent of those sales have gone offshore, with interest in England and Ireland very high. As things stand, English support is second behind that of the All Blacks, with the Irish in third. It's a pretty good take-up, given that it's a hell of a way for people to come, especially when there's a recession on. And now supporters can buy tickets for specific games, we're expecting a sharp increase in interest from Australia."
Snedden said he was still budgeting for a loss of NZ$39m (£18m) on the tournament, but emphasised that the New Zealand government was covering two-thirds of that sum.
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