Spiky Henson tackles critics head on

The Principality Pin-Up: Centre who kicked up a storm with team-mates finds humble pie hard to swallow
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The Independent Online

As showbiz/sporty couples go, Charlotte Church and Gavin Henson have become Wales's answer to Posh and Becks, with a subtle difference. Charlotte can sing and Gavin doesn't miss penalties.

Henson, of course, is an admirer of David Beckham: "I like the way he plays and the way he looks." Both are role models, although some would say that at this delicate stage of his career Henson is more model than complete footballer.

Professional rugby is hard enough without making yourself a target. If Henson got to the bathroom first, Miss Church would have a long wait. His grooming is as important as his preparation for a match. There's the shaving of the legs, the fake perma-tan, the waxing and colouring of the extraordinary hair which gives him a permanent impression of having seen a ghost. You won't find Henson in a scrum cap. About the only headgear that could accommodate his stalagmite is a busby.

Last season, he got up the nose not just of Brian O'Driscoll but Welsh team-mates Martyn Williams and Dafydd James. When Wales clinched the Grand Slam by beating Ireland in Cardiff, Henson said that at one point O'Driscoll pulled his hair and tried to gouge his eyes. "How do you like that, you cocky little fucker?" the Irish captain is reported to have said.

"The players I really can't stand," Henson says, "are the ones who act like dicks on the field and then try and be your best mate when the game's over." Playing for the Ospreys against Cardiff, Henson says Williams punched him and said: "You don't like it in the face, do you, pretty boy?" That's from a player he regards as a friend.

After Henson and O'Driscoll had gone on the Lions tour to New Zealand, which ended disastrously for both, the Welsh icon not only had a go at the Irish icon but laid into the reputations of Sir Clive Woodward and Alastair Campbell.

Henson's autobiography, My Grand Slam Year, produced at the ripe old age of 23, slammed a lot of people but, incredibly, a demand for a public apology came from Gareth Thomas, the Wales captain. It will already make a chapter for the sequel.

Last month, the Welsh Rugby Union issued an unprecedented statement that Henson made "an unreserved apology to any of his team-mates offended by the contents of the book". Thomas arranged a players' meeting at which Henson had to swallow humble pies the size of Mumbles.

"I have fully taken on board everything they said to me," Henson said. "I didn't mean to offend anyone, it's the last thing I wanted to do. We were a close and tight-knit group during our Six Nations campaign. I don't want to spoil that... I want to draw a line under the whole thing and move on." Thomas, who is not Henson's guardian angel, said: "We were pleased to see Gavin; it's great he came out in public and accep-ted he has been wrong with some of the things he said. We needed to discuss it face to face so there was no misunderstanding."

As an exercise in promoting the book - which almost certainly none of the Wales squad will have read, although they would have seen the newspaper serialisation of the more sensational bits - it was brilliant. If the meeting was meant to belittle Henson, or somehow give the impression he was under the control of the WRU, then almost everybody in Wales must hope that it failed.

The meeting should never have been called, and neither the players nor Henson should have agreed to attend it. Nobody would reveal what it was that they actually objected to. Perhaps it was Thomas's reference to the Charlotte-Gavin relationship: "You want to steer clear of all that crap. She might just be out for a bit of cheap publicity." In years to come, Henson will probably think he should have told them to stuff it, which has been his philosophy virtually throughout his young career. If he had, what would have happened? Llareggub, spelt backwards, as Dylan Thomas would say.

Throughout, Henson has been a handful, and he has done it his way, infuriating everybody from the Wales Under-16s to the present day, whether it be for throwing a wobbly for not having the right-sized sock or causing criminal damage at the private bar of Brains, the Cardiff brewery who sponsor the Welsh team.

When Henson said he was devastated at being omitted by Sir Clive from the Lions team for the First Test against the All Blacks, it was about the 12th devastation since he emerged from the village of Pencoed, where Scott Gibbs was a role model and definitely not a model. How many more can Henson take?

We will soon find out. The hero who kicked the winning penalty against England last February that sparked Wales's run to the Slam was invalided out of the Lions tour with concussion on top of a long-standing groin injury. He had the operation and, after an absence of more than four months, is expected to begin his comeback today against Bristol in the Powergen Cup.

The result means nothing, but to Henson, Wales and the Ospreys it could be hugely significant. In the Heineken Cup, the Ospreys go to Leicester and they want Henson to front up. If anybody can, after such a tumultuous year, Henson can.

Is he as good as he thinks, or as fake as his tan? If all that has happened hasn't gone to his head - when the Ospreys played their final game last season, he and Charlotte were on a yacht in the south of France - he could be the best yet. There is nothing in the game he cannot do, and he has the build and the mind to do it.

Mind you, the same was said in the Sixties of a huge teenager called Terry Price from Hendy, a tiny village near Llanelli. Regarded as one of the most naturally gifted players from the Principality, Price won eight caps before moving to rugby league.

Henson has twice the number of caps that Price got, but even he could never be twice as arrogant. Both made life difficult for themselves. The difference is that Henson revels in it.

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