Saturday 3 December 2016

Crunch time for Henson

Andrew Baldock

Published 28/04/2011 | 15:17

Gavin Henson's rugby career has arrived lock, stock and barrel in the last-chance saloon.

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The Welshman's many critics might say - and with some justification - that it has already imploded after another fierce press of the self-destruct button.

Henson looks set to learn tomorrow whether or not he has a future in the Cote d'Azur with wealthy French club Toulon.

He met club officials yesterday after being suspended for a week following an alleged brawl with a team-mate following Toulon's Top 14 victory over Toulouse earlier this month.

Henson's Toulon contract does not extend beyond this season, and it would be a huge surprise if he is offered another one. Not only because of recent events, but also the fact coach Philippe Saint-Andre has to consider this year's World Cup in his squad plans.

Saint-Andre is resigned to losing England star Jonny Wilkinson during a World Cup period when Toulon will play nine league games, while star Australian signing Matt Giteau does not arrive until after this year's global gathering.

Should Henson gain World Cup selection for Wales, that would leave Saint-Andre without three potentially influential players for a large chunk of the league campaign. Not even Toulon could afford such an expensive luxury.

If Toulon point Henson towards the exit door, two people possibly hold a key to his rugby future - Wales coach Warren Gatland and Ospreys managing director Mike Cuddy.

Gatland and Welsh Rugby Union chief executive Roger Lewis plan talks not only with Henson, but Wasps and Wales number eight Andy Powell, whose involvement in a bar-room brawl 10 days ago has left his club future hanging by a thread.

Gatland can conceivably live without both players, and as a strict disciplinarian that could easily be the course of action he decides to take.

For all kinds of reasons, Gatland has not been able to call on Henson since the 2009 RBS 6 Nations campaign.

Have Wales missed him? Again, as with most matters surrounding the 29-year-old, it is a highly-contentious subject.

But when you cut through the complex character and the huge ego, there still lies a gifted rugby player, an individual who could offer a considerable amount to Wales in their World Cup campaign later this year.

Henson proved against Toulouse that he is match-fit - a rarity for him in recent times - so Gatland must now decide whether to incorporate him in his plans for Wales' game against the Barbarians on June 4.

Before everything went pear-shaped in Toulon, it was widely expected that Gatland would select Henson for Wales' next match, which then leads into summer training camps and three World Cup warm-up fixtures during August.

That could - and I believe should - still happen, because a fit, firing and committed Henson is too good a player for Wales to leave behind when they board their New Zealand-bound flight.

And that is the rub.

Gatland knows that for Wales to have any realistic World Cup chance, all his front-line players must deliver the goods. There can be no passengers, considering Wales' are in the same pool as South Africa, Fiji and Samoa.

He has a cut-off date of August 22 to name his 30-man World Cup squad - almost three months after Wales play the Barbarians, and more than enough time to decide whether or not Henson should be checked in or checked out.

Henson has, at any given opportunity, talked about his desire to play in a World Cup. He has 31 caps and one British and Irish Lions tour behind him, but, one senses, a career of unfulfillment.

Cuddy, meanwhile, reaffirmed this week that the door remains open for Henson to possibly rejoin the Ospreys, despite leaving them last year following a prolonged self-imposed rugby exile.

As ever with Henson, there are lots of possibles and very few probables, but if people like Gatland and Cuddy are prepared to stand by him, then he must reward such faith in bucketloads.

Henson has to stop talking a good game, start playing one again and make the absolute maximum of any chance he is given.

The time has long gone when Henson called the shots - this is a put-up or shut-up scenario.

His rugby career has reached the final crossroads, and only Henson knows if he has in it him to avoid taking the turning signposted "road to nowhere."

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