Evening Standard

Point to prove: Gavin Henson has been given a new lease of life since joining Saracens at the end of last year. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Gavin Henson’s love for Wales is not in doubt. But, he confesses, he just couldn’t go on living in the Principality.

“I got a lot of stick in the Welsh media,” he says. “It is hard to understand quite what I had done so badly there. The media in Wales don’t understand me. They treat me like an unwanted son. So I said, enough is enough, I need to be out of Wales’.

“I had a few friends in London and thought I would try a London club.”

Matters, he says, were not helped by the Ospreys, his previous club, allowing the Welsh media “a free ride” against him.

He adds: “They were allowed to say what they liked, I was never allowed to comment. The club attitude was, if you never say anything, it goes away. But it doesn’t, really.”

Now, freed from Osprey’s censorship, Henson has no intention of letting his Welsh critics, not even the great Jonathan Davies, have a free ride.

So he is ready with his response when I mention to him that Davies, who represented Wales in union and league, said recently that “he doesn’t deserve to be anywhere near the squad and I think everyone is fed up with it” after Henson was named in a 40-man training group for the Six Nations.

“He is a legend and he is entitled to his opinion,” says Henson diplomatically, before with a sigh and a fiddle of the peak of his cap, he adds, “but that is part of the reason why I left the country. People like that, with those opinions, drove me out of Wales.

“It is not needed now. I am trying my best. I would argue I have got a good record when playing for Wales.”

Henson, who has 31 caps but last represented his country in March 2009, has twice won the Grand Slam for Wales — in 2005 and 2008 — triumphs that eluded Davies.

However, he readily concedes that he needs to start playing regularly for his new club Saracens soon if he is going to make it into the Wales team that take on England in the opening match if the Six Nations on 4 February.

On Sunday against London Irish, in Brendan Venter’s final game as coach, the 28-year-old started on the bench only getting a five-minute run at the end. “I need to be starting for Saracens to be in Wales squad,” he confesses. “I was hoping it would be in time for next month but I am running out of time.”

Eighteen months ago, any such thought of playing rugby would have seemed very strange to Henson. Then, in April 2009, he had given up the game for good having suffered an awful run of injuries, including damaging his shoulder, calf and ankle.

“When I stopped I felt completely done with it,” he tells me. “I looked back on my career and thought, Ah, I have done all right’. I did not miss it.”

His concern was to save his relationship with Charlotte Church, the Welsh singer, songwriter, actress and television presenter and mother of his two children: Ruby, three and Dexter, two.

“When I finished with rugby I had problems with my relationship,” he adds. “I wanted it to work. I felt maybe rugby was getting in the way. So I took on a full-time, stay-at-home dad role to help Charlotte with her career.

“Parting with Charlotte was traumatic, that cut me to pieces.”

His only comfort is he had a year with his kids: “No one can take that year away from me. It was a high every day, something new every day.”

The end of his relationship also rekindled his love for the game he has played since the age of five, quite suddenly, one day in Norway last March.

“We were filming 71 Degrees North, the ITV programme,” he says. “I had not trained for a year. Being a full-time dad, I would eat anything I could get my hands on, more conscious of feeding the kids and waking up with them through the night.

“71 Degrees North was so physical and demanding that I actually got fitter as it went on. The ankle ligaments injuries had disappeared and I did not have pains. I began to feel stronger. I carried on training and that is when the positive feelings for rugby came out. I began dreaming about playing rugby again and getting my body back in shape. I realised I really missed it.”

But with this in mind, why did Henson take to the dance floor, not the rugby ground, last September?

“Strictly Come Dancing was not something I was looking to do,” he insists. “When I was first approached, I said no’ straight away. I was looking to get back into rugby. But no rugby club came in for me. I needed to earn. I had no money. I had not earned any money since April 2009.”

Strictly could not have been a more unlikely choice for the versatile centre, who confesses to be “tone deaf” and does not even accept that the Welsh have a reputation as music lovers.

“Welsh, musical? I don’t know about that. No, no rugby is the main thing in Wales. I am not musical at all.

“I did not do any singing when I was a kid and I like cheesy 80s music, not Strictly music. It was such hard work to learn dancing, eight hours a day, with four days to learn a dance.

“The most nerve-wracking thing was dancing in front of a live audience with 13 million watching on television. Yes, I’ve played rugby before much bigger live audiences but I have done it all my life, it comes naturally. Strictly was so far out of my comfort zone.

“But, I proved everyone wrong. Before it started I was written off by friends and family. They said, You cannot dance. You will be out in the first week’. Then to score a nine and judges saying, You can dance.’

“To get a standing ovation and to get to the semi-finals was a great feeling. It tops any rugby moment, even winning the Six Nations.”

But even as he experienced such highs, twirling with his partner Katya Virshilas, Henson knew this could not be his life, even though while in the Strictly bubble’ he did play the celebrity role eagerly and was often photographed stripped to the waist displaying a tanned body.

“Some people make a lot of money out of Strictly,” he says. “But there is no substance to that sort of celebrity lifestyle. [Stripping] was one of the dance partner’s ideas to have a hook to get me through the routines. It was not just me taking my shirt off, it is what the show is all about. It is not taken too seriously. It is a bit of fun.

“One of the reasons I went on the programme was so that people could see the real guy, have a fair idea of the person I am.

“It was a very conscious decision. Now when rubbish is written about me, at least they will have their own perception of me.”

Strictly, he feels, could also teach the rugby bosses a thing or two.

“For me winning is everything but there is a little bit more than that to the game,” he adds. “The old people who run the sport need to understand it is an entertainment business.

“So, more characters are needed in the game to try and sell it and coaches need to take responsibility to get a better brand of rugby for people to watch. From Strictly, I could bring maybe balance and memorising moves.

“To memorise so many dance steps was hard. Now learning rugby moves is a lot easier.”

This should impress his coaches at Saracens and Henson could not be more pleased with his new employers.

“They’re a good club and it’s a great place to be. They have great facilities and I get on with all the boys. There are lots of South Africans and they’re all top players. A lot of good youngsters are coming through and they have a very young back line.”

Henson’s problem is that things have changed dramatically since he signed for the club last October. Venter has gone back to South Africa and yesterday Saracens signed England fly-half Charlie Hodgson. Owen Farrell, coach Andy’s son, has also claimed the No12 shirt that Henson covets.

“I like to play inside-centre, a playmaker role and get the ball in the hand a lot more. That’s quite tough at the moment but I am doing all I can to try and hopefully make the coach select me as a 10 or 12.”

Reassuringly for him, he does not feel rugby has changed much in the 18 months he was away. In that time Henson watched no rugby and his first match was at Saracens, just before signing for the club.

He adds: “I do not feel I have been away that long, rugby is still the same by the looks of it. I think all my skills are there. I just need game time.”

If he gets that, then not only the Six Nations but the World Cup in New Zealand in the autumn is in his sights.

“I never been to the World Cup, I’ve always missed out through non selection,” he says. “It is a tough one to bear. I will do everything I can to make the World Cup squad.

“I have hardly played but I would like to think I will be good when I play.”

And while the Welsh media may have made Henson an exile, the talented performer still hopes that the public will take him to their hearts again should he get another chance to turn out at the Millennium Stadium.

He insists: “Wales can win the Six Nations this year.

“They have definitely got the players and the game to do so. This could be our year.”


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