Wales' celebrity talisman aims to heap bad luck on the Irish
Gavin Henson has never lost when he and Tom Shanklin have started at centre. He will try to extend that run today against his nemesis Brian O'Driscoll. James Corrigan reports
Saturday 21 March 2009
There will obviously be more important sporting streaks for Brian O'Driscoll to worry about at the Millennium Stadium this evening than Gavin Henson's 100 per cent winning record in the Six Nations that stretches back four years and 11 starts. But if Ireland prevail and if their captain can finally boast an honour on his CV worthy of all that talent in his DNA, then surely in the months ahead he would allow himself a chuckle about Henson. Perhaps even a smack of his lips and an exclamation of, "boy, how sweet is this revenge?"
Henson can have this effect on people, although, with some, the disaffection is often irrational, based on such inconsequentials as shaven legs, perma-tans, hair-gels, etc. With O'Driscoll, any bristling enmity has to do with actions that fall under the label "rugby matters" and what he considers to be the breaking of a dressing-room code thereafter.
The last time these two sides met in a Championship decider was 2005 when it happened to be Wales stretching desperate hands across the decades to grab their own elusive Grand Slam. The hype was as overblown as the hwyl and, despite nobody knowing at the time, it had spilled on to the pitch to cover the two most famous players on view in its associated vitriol. Later that same year, in his infamous tome, My Grand Slam Year, Henson accused O'Driscoll of gouging him that day and of yelling in his ear: "How do you like that, you cocky little fucker?"
O'Driscoll vehemently denied the claims, further castigating his Lions team-mate for accusing other players on that shambolic tour to New Zealand of being "in love with the sound of their own voices". Unsurprisingly, the majority in the game backed O'Driscoll. Henson was cast as the loner, as a pariah even, as an uppity 23-year-old blessed with all the rugby skills but lacking in a few of the union's traditional core "values"...
Fast forward four years and the sound of a 27-year-old's voice can be heard all across Rome's Stadio Flaminio. There Henson is, waging a four-lettered war with the Wales captain, Ryan Jones, about the decision to go for the posts with a final-second penalty rather than just kick it out and so bring an end to a grim win over Italy. Jones waves away Henson, the match runs its course and Henson sprints down the tunnel without shaking a single hand of opponent or team-mate.
Surely he will return with the rest of his squad to salute the travelling Welsh fans, won't he? Nope. An hour later, he does appear, but strangely enough in the media zone where he proceeds to lay into Welsh tactics. He goes as far as to say "we deserved to lose". Yet there is a certain resignation in his body-language, an exasperation, that eventually gives way when he pauses his frank assessment to ask the assembled reporters: "So you're making a big thing of this, yeah?" By now he appreciates that another Gavin controversy has been born. He sighs. Henson long ago learned that in weeks such as this he is not just a sitting duck but one sprawled on a chaise longue with a nasty case of cramp. In truth, this particular controversy passes by largely without fall-out. A few over-enthusiastic journalists – this one included – use the word "mutiny" in their match reports and wonder whether Warren Gatland will drop the centre for his insolence.
In fact, the opposite proves true. On the Monday, Rob Howley, the backs coach, announces Henson was "spot on" concerning the tactics and, on Tuesday, Gatland reminds the press that this is exactly the sort of behaviour they wanted from Henson. Okay, not the "snubbing the supporters" bit, but certainly to speak up, to stand up, to be counted. It all stems back to Gatland's startling revelation in the autumn. "We are working with Gavin to get him to talk more and communicate more and get confidence and self-belief," said the Wales coach before the South African Test the oft-injured Henson was to miss with a niggling Achilles. "Gavin expresses himself by the way he looks on the field. He is quiet and a private person. A lot of people are surprised to hear that."
That Henson is misunderstood is one of the few aspects about Henson that is widely understood. A cocky little so-and-so he is not, especially when, as Gatland says, he steps the stand's side of the whitewash. He comes across that way because of the look, that book and the occasional PR right hook. Just when it seems Henson's reputation is on the mend and he is set to confirm Gatland's faith in him as "the best No 12 in the world" then he manages to floor himself with his own behaviour. This latest affair is reminiscent of the time he was banned from the Ospreys for going AWOL for two days after being challenged about the quality of a performance. That came in October.
And then there have been "drinking" incidents. It is fair to say that Henson and alcohol is not the most advisable combination. There was the "rowdy behaviour" on the train from London to Cardiff after an Ospreys match in December 2007. Three of his friends were fined, while Henson was interviewed by police but not charged. More recently, in February in fact, Henson was again spoken to by the police when "celebrating" Wales' victory over England in a pub just a pool-ball's throw away from the Millennium Stadium.
In the Queen's Vaults, Henson leapt up on to pool tables, grabbed cues and was generally so offensive that the scrum-half Mike Phillips, no angel himself, decided to go up to the microphone and say sorry to the other pub-goers. What made the following tabloid tales that bit more sensational was that Henson's wife, one Charlotte Church, was at home with their new-born son and that Henson, himself, was still recovering from an injury that had kept him out of the first two Six Nations matches.
Whatever the relevancy of any of that, the Wales coaching staff were unimpressed and disciplined Henson among others. It certainly shone a light on Gatland's long-held contention that "the media have been 99 per cent of the problem with Gavin". "They have built him up and run stories about him and his partner and it must be difficult for him at times to balance that side of it with being a rugby player," he said. "I have treated him as a normal member of the squad."
What Gatland now thinks about all that is unclear, but what is plain is that the Welsh Rugby Union do not see Henson as a normal player of the squad. If they do, then why did they see fit to rush out a statement of congratulations to Ms Church and Henson (below left) when she became pregnant with their first child, a facility never afforded to any other Welsh player's wife or partner?
The truth is Henson is different to the average rugby professional and, for that matter, the above average rugby professional. He is admirably honest whenever he consents to confront the press, and this is often what lands him in trouble. It will be a shame if his refusal to spout the usual anodyne claptrap – "I look at guys giving their post-match interviews and I can predict what they're going to say, who wants to listen to that?" Henson told one interviewer – threatens his career, if only because of what he offers in studs. Today he is reunited with Tom Shanklin, the outside centre with whom he enjoys a phenomenal record. This will be the 13th time in which they have started at 12 and 13 together and they are yet to have been on a losing Welsh side. Listen to Shanklin and any notion of coincidence is overruled.
"The thing about playing with Gav is that there is either space around him or outside him," he says. "The more I play with him the better I feel with him. He's just so great to play alongside."
If only O'Driscoll could see that; for together they should form the Lions' midfield in South Africa. Perhaps they will and this will be the day when mutual admiration wins out. But don't bank on it. It's never that simple with Gavin.
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