Henson happy to be back in game after dalliance in the ballroom

Welshman 'positive' about making debut for Saracens on Sunday after 20 months out and pain of public split
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The Independent Online

It is 20 months since Gavin Henson last played a game of rugby, a further couple of weeks since the last of his 31 international appearances for Wales, but our Gav has not been idle: he has moved clubs, he has parted company with Charlotte Church, the mother of his two children, and he has starred in two reality television programmes.

Programmes of extremes, one might say. Seventy-One Degrees North provided extremes of temperature with which the nation will identify just now. Strictly Come Dancing, on the other hand, is a whirlwind of colour, schmoozing and bloody hard work in which Henson was just pipped for a place in last Saturday's final.

Are extremes what Henson needs right now? Not, you would think, if he is to resume an effective rugby career after so long a hiatus. But Saracens plan to reintroduce him to the oval ball, with not a sequin in sight, at Wembley on Sunday when they stage one of their successful away days in the Premiership, against Wasps.

"Those two TV programmes have been good for me but I would rather be taken seriously as a rugby player," Henson said yesterday at Wembley. "I want to get back to the top of the game. I can't say what the odds are on my being involved with Wales [who open against England in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium on 4 February] in the Six Nations, I have to get into the Saracens team first.

"Now I'm feeling really positive about the game. The reasons I moved away from Wales this year were personal. It was tough for me with everything that was going on with Charlotte, I was cut to pieces and the Welsh media weren't too kind. I wanted to be appreciated again. I didn't know what I had done wrong. But the rugby environment is my environment."

His immediate rugby environment will not be Saracens' homely backwater at Watford but Wembley, in front of more than 40,000 at the country's football capital. Not so far removed from Strictly after all, even though the company of, say, the South African scrum half Neil De Kock may be less enticing than that of his dance partner, the Lithuanian/Canadian actress Katya Virshilas.

No one in their right mind expects Henson, 28, to spring back into rugby fully formed. This is the talent that, remarkably, first appeared on the international stage as long ago as 2001, has had hardened coaches drooling like schoolboys and yet remains unfulfilled. A sporadic career and an unsuccessful Lions tour in 2005 has been illuminated only by those two Grand Slam years for Wales, in 2005 and 2008.

Saracens must try to bring fulfilment at a time when their own fortunes are at the mix and match counter. They are out of Europe, despite beating Racing Metro 92 in Paris on Friday night and have lost a degree of conviction in the Premiership; their director of rugby, Brendan Venter, returns to his native South Africa next month.

So will Sarries be good for Gavin or he for Sarries? The boy from mid-Glamorgan who has spent his senior career with Ospreys in Swansea must now become accustomed to the hard grind of the Premiership with a collection of tough nuts from Springbok territory, some old English sweats and a clutch of the most exciting but largely untried English youth.

Maybe they can find each other together. Whatever the putdowns Henson endured from the Strictly judges (and they were many and varied) he has lost none of his confidence in his ability to play the game which has been his life since the age of five. "I have no idea where I am, to be honest, but I'm feeling pretty good," Henson said. "The skill levels are not too bad in training. It's going to be fun."

That is something that was missing when Henson turned his back on the game after an ankle ligament injury received against Gloucester in the 2009 EDF Cup semi-final. Four years of nagging injury had dashed his spirits and, for seven months, he was happy to be a house-husband, sharing the upbringing of Ruby (three) and Dexter (two next month).

Chances are that he will be tested from the bench against Wasps, perhaps a brief spell in midfield unless injuries dictate otherwise. "I like to think I can be better than I was. I'm in a better place at the moment. I haven't been able to sprint properly since 2004-5, now I can. I'm more confident about life generally. Everything has come together right."

That will be for others to determine if Henson is to climb the peaks his ability has always suggested he should. His contract with Saracens runs only until May though if player and club spark each other, it could be extended. Warren Gatland, the Wales coach and a great admirer, will watch his progress with interest since the World Cup is only nine months away – a tournament in which Henson has never played. "I think I can wing it," he said but rugby's judges must reserve their verdict.

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