David Flatman: Henson's talent will leave his tan in the shade

The Welsh prodigy's profile, added to pressure on his body, simply proved too great a burden to bear
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The Independent Online

Lots of famous athletes claim as often as we will listen that they hate the limelight, but I rarely believe them. The medium that delivers this information undermines the message. In order to give an answer one has to have been asked a question and in order to be asked a question one must, unless phone-tapping and high-level subterfuge has infiltrated rugby, be in an interview.

If I didn't want to do interviews, I wouldn't. How often do you read candid, personal interviews with 69-times capped, World Cup-winning, double British and Irish Lion Danny Grewcock OBE? It happens, but probably only once every few years, when he can fob off our press officer no more. This is the behaviour of a man who actually doesn't like the attention. Justin Harrison, the former Australia and Bath lock, loved an interview. He was intelligent, hugely articulate and always had something to say. But best of all, he never denied enjoying his time with the media.

Sometimes, of course, there are those who do not want to be the focus of everyone's attention but, for some reason, seem irresistible to the men with the pens. Gavin Henson might fall into this category. His almost unnatural levels of ability coupled with his over-manicured, somewhat out-of-context appearance made him a sporting enigma overnight. Not many players deliver match-winning performances on the international stage yet find their girlfriend or hair or tan becoming the headline.

I do not think anyone could argue that Henson's self-inflicted absence from the game is in any way due to his hounding at the hands of the bequilled beast. He always seemed to be written about in glowing terms. I think the profile inherited with the celebrity girlfriend, on top of the feeling of pressure to perform when his body wouldn't play ball, proved too much. It is one thing being injured, it is another to be reminded of it every time you pick up a paper.

For most of Jonny Wilkinson's injury lay-offs, I was in the same boat. One school of thought might argue that however hard it is being stuck on the sidelines time after time, it's a damn sight easier with a load of wedge in the bank. I would see their point. The mortgage, after a while, becomes as big a worry as your body. Another school might suggest that spells of injury are far less uncomfortable if they pass under the radar. Nobody really wrote about mine – if you can't sleep tonight, give me a call and I'll have you off in no time – while Jonny seemed unable to stub his toe on the sofa without it making ink.

It seems that relatively few people, at least few rugby people, know Henson intimately. Despite so often appearing on our screens as the ultimate showman, he is apparently less keen to mix and mingle than most. His look screams "look at me" while his mannerisms whisper "leave me alone". It is perhaps this paradox that makes him such an interesting subject. His rugby acted as his introduction but the caricature, the potential for soap opera, became the conversation. The outgoing, über-famous girlfriend, the plucked eyebrows, the mahogany skin tone (quickly copied by the likes of James Hook and Lee Byrne. What would JPR have said?) and the sheer weight of wet-look hair gel were too much to resist. Except he didn't always like it.

When times were good and his game was flowing he was everywhere. When his form dipped he visibly shrank, his body language switching from alpha male to apologetic underling before our eyes. The image coupled with the behaviour would point to issues with confidence – "he's probably insecure," being the obvious and least original analysis.

But then he would play against England and all of these theories of ours would be shattered. In truth, it is not our job to offer a psychological profile from a distance. Our job is simply to hope he is happy.

He was, and could again become, a once-in-a-generation rugby player. A Welsh legend. However, if he doesn't fancy it, he shouldn't do it. I hope he plays again, purely because I loved to watch him make the game I find so difficult look so hilariously simple. Ronnie O'Sullivan seems to have the same gift. In a way it pains me, but I can never look away. This is Henson. Whether he plays again or not, we all saw him and we will not forget him. And his legacy will not be his tan or his immaculately shaved thighs. It will be rugby. Wonderful rugby.

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