Gavin Henson has yet another chance to stake his claim for Wales despite having made only nine first-class starting appearances in almost three years and having been dropped from this weekend's Heineken Cup decider by the Blues. Warren Gatland warned, however, that if the utility back "is not up to speed" he will not appear in the final Six Nations squad.
Gatland named Henson in the 35-strong party who will take part in the training camp in Poland next week, which will ape the preparations for last year's World Cup. The shrewd Kiwi did so anticipating the resulting hype. "You do ask yourself if it is worth the hassle of selecting Gavin because of the interest and speculation you get from the media," said Gatland. But he is a long-time admirer of Henson and pointed to his contribution to the 2008 Grand Slam.
Nevertheless, Henson – who turns 30 in a fortnight – has only played three times for the Blues this season, after recovering from a wrist injury which kept him out the World Cup, and finds himself dumped from the Blues match-day 22 who will take on Racing Metro on Sunday.
After an unconvincing showing at No 12 last Saturday at London Irish, the words of Gareth Baber, the Blues coach, hardly inspires great hope of an imminent international return. While praising Henson for his professionalism since linking up with the region in November, Baber outlined his doubts. "He is probably not where I suppose the public and yourself want him to be," he told journalists. "He's had a while out of the game."
But Gatland remains committed to Henson, although the chances of him starting against Ireland in the Six Nations open two weeks on Sunday seem remote. "Centre is one of the positions we have depth," he said. "There was a long debate about Gavin: he was not the first name on our sheet, given the way we went in the midfield in the World Cup, but we will look at him because of his past reputation and sit down with him and see where his head is at. When he has been in our environment before, his attitude has always been spot on. But if he is not up to speed, he will not be selected further."
Gatland was clearly dismayed that his call-up of the Blues' Harry Robinson was being overshadowed by Henson. The 18-year-old wing has played only two senior matches.
Following George North's remarkably rapid rise to prominence the rugby world will be wary of the latest Welsh wonder kid. Gatland certainly did not talk Robinson down, although it would be a huge surprise if he makes the pared-down squad. "Harry is a bit like Jason Robinson in the way he darts around," said Gatland, who found no place for the veteran fly-half, Stephen Jones.
Gatland is aware of the challenge awaiting them in Dublin on the opening weekend. The Welsh squad head to the rigours of the Spala in Poland, aware the sessions will be intense regardless of their advancement to the World Cup semi-finals at the expense of Declan Kidney's side. "Ireland will go into the Six Nations with a lot of confidence," said Gatland, a former Irish coach. "Ulster's victory over Leicester last Friday was stunning. There will be a backlash because of the comprehensive victory we had over Ireland in the World Cup. Knowing the Irish as I do, they will be intent on revenge."
* It looks as though England winger Chris Ashton has reached a parting of the ways with Northampton after he reportedly stormed out of training this week following a heated argument with the club's director of rugby, Jim Mallinder. Ashton is set to be left out of the Saints' squad for the vital Heineken Cup home game against Munster on Saturday and it appears likely he has played his last game for the club. Northampton have been concerned with Ashton's attitude since he returned from the World Cup in the autumn and the 24-year-old, who started his career in rugby league with Wigan, has long been linked a move to Saracens. That transfer could now be completed as soon as next week.
Backs Mike Phillips, Lloyd Williams, Rhys Webb, Rhys Priestland, James Hook, Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams, Gavin Henson, Ashley Beck, George North, Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Harry Robinson, Liam Williams, Lee Byrne.
Forwards Craig Mitchell, Adam Jones, Ryan Bevington, Gethin Jenkins, Paul James, Rhys Gill, Rhodri Jones, Matthew Rees, Huw Bennett, Ken Owens, Bradley Davies, Ian Evans, Lou Reed, Ryan Jones, Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Toby Faletau, Andy Powell.
Gatland looks for year's leave to lead Lions
Warren Gatland stated his desire yesterday to lead the British Lions on their 2013 tour of Australia and claimed that his employers at the Welsh Rugby Union would not stand in his way, despite the necessity for him to be released for a year from his coaching duties.
Gatland was an assistant to Sir Ian McGeechan on the 2009 tour of South Africa and having been such an influence in that tour, which culminated in an agonising 2-1 loss in the Test series, the New Zealander is keen to go one better in Australia. He said: "2009 was a huge honour and if that opportunity came along again it would be fantastic."
Gatland is the front-runner for the Lions job and his obvious rivals are his counterparts with Ireland and Scotland, Declan Kidney and Andy Robinson. Whoever is named, probably in April, will have to square the appointment with his home union. Andy Irvine, the 2013 tour manager, has said that the head coach will be required "to be available effectively a year out".
That means Gatland would be ruled out of involvement in the November Tests and the 2013 Six Nations. He signed a contract extension last year, to take him up to the 2015 World Cup, and it is understood that this includes only a five-month break clause for him to be involved with the Lions.
Asked if the WRU would accept a far longer release, Gatland said:"I don't think there would be any negative hindrance."
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