Hugh Farrelly: Leinster can derail Henson bandwagon
IT is the second coming of Gavin Henson ... or is it the fifth?
The perma-tanned 'wonderboy' of Welsh rugby is starting at full-back on the Blues side to face Leinster in their Pro12 clash at the Cardiff City Stadium this evening and, once again, all the focus is on Henson -- just the way he likes it.
He turns 30 at the start of next month and though he has two Grand Slams and a Lions tour on his CV, it is fair to say Henson's career has largely been defined by unfulfilled hype. Although first capped for Wales in 2001, Henson's breakthrough came in '05 when he was likened to Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll in terms of his status as his country's gifted figurehead.
The comparisons were premature at the time and now verge on risible, as the statistics confirm (see panel).
There is undoubtedly talent there -- a big boot, physical presence in the tackle, decent skill-set and ability to glide into space -- but nowhere near O'Driscoll's level, nor ever as exceptional as it was made out to be by Henson's admirers.
The hype can be traced back to the Grand Slam-launching victory over England in 2005.
Beating England means everything to the Welsh (as it does to most countries) and his dumping of 18-year-old Mathew Tait (remember him?) and dramatic halfway line winning kick elevated Henson to the status of national hero.
O'Driscoll already had that status in Ireland but has preferred to steer clear of the spotlight, as much as he was able to, while Henson actively embraced it; and while his talent was never at the same level of his Irish counterpart, his ego ran far ahead.
After one half-decent season, Henson released a book, modestly titled 'My Grand Slam Year' which did not endear him to team-mates, in particular captain Gareth Thomas, who felt their contribution had been denigrated to support-role status.
There was also a couple of ill-advised digs at O'Driscoll in the book, relating to the Grand Slam-clinching win over Ireland (when he accused the Irish captain of pulling his hair) and the subsequent Lions tour when Henson flopped spectacularly.
Henson's post-2005 career saw him contribute to their Grand Slam in '08 under Warren Gatland but, unlike his Irish rival, his career form has been inconsistent and never central to his team's success.
Welcoming the celebrity existence that accompanied his relationship with singer Charlotte Church, Henson was more than happy to sign up for various reality TV shows, most recently 'The Bachelor' where a procession of lovelies competed for the honour of his affections.
When the Welsh RFU wheeled him out as their public face a couple of seasons ago, despite Henson being in the middle of a career break, the Wales players were further angered, while his club career has encompassed a controversial spell with Toulon, a brief stint with Saracens and now his attempt at rehabilitation with Cardiff.
Wales' 2005 Grand Slam coach Mike Ruddock, now overseeing the Ireland U-20s, has coached both players and, while he backs Henson's playing abilities, he does not believe his career can possibly compare with O'Driscoll's.
"There is no doubt Gavin is a very talented player," he said. "I suppose the question would have been where to play him. I think maybe he lacked a bit of control to play out-half and maybe a bit of back-three speed to play full-back. When I coached him in '05, I saw him as a second ball-player at inside-centre.
"He was very good in the November Internationals in '04 and then against England he was up against a youngster where his size and extra experience told and then he kicked the winning penalty. It all seemed to fall his way and Wales maybe got a bit carried away with him.
"But, in terms of impact, longevity, mental and physical toughness there is no real comparison with Brian. It's not a like-for-like -- Brian has been a leader and a role model and would be well ahead in all those areas."
Leinster, of course, are missing O'Driscoll as he recovers from his shoulder problem, but Joe Schmidt can still name a side with 12 Ireland internationals for today's encounter (6.15).
Given all the recent furore over the use of overseas players, it is interesting to note that all of Schmidt's starting XV are Irish-qualified, with Heinke van der Merwe and Isa Nacewa the only non-Irish players in a powerful 23.
Once again, Fergus McFadden wears O'Driscoll's No 13 jersey alongside Gordon D'Arcy in a midfield partnership that could well be replicated for Ireland come the Six Nations.
Jamie Heaslip captains the side from No 8, next to flankers Kevin McLaughlin and Sean O'Brien, with an all-international front-row of Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Mike Ross backing up second-rows Damian Browne and Devin Toner.
Jonathan Sexton partners Eoin Reddan at half-back and a pacy back-three includes Rob Kearney at full-back, with his brother Dave and Andrew Conway filling the wing positions.
Cardiff can also call on a clutch of internationals led by Wales captain Sam Warburton, who returns to lead the side from openside flanker, while Dan Parks is their main point-scoring danger at No 10.
Despite their share of injury problems, it is still a powerful Cardiff side who have won their last four matches at the stadium. They will be seeking revenge for their humiliation at the RDS last month, but Leinster, on a run of nine wins in the league, will fancy their chances of cementing their lead at the head of the Pro12.
And Henson? Having featured in August before missing the World Cup with an arm injury, he said this week that he is desperate to prove himself to Gatland in time for the Six Nations.
Ruddock does not rule it out but believes it will be a big challenge.
"He is definitely capable of getting back with Wales," said Ruddock. "The skill levels are certainly there but Henson has had his share of injury problems and will be 33 or 34 come the next World Cup, and the hits are bigger now than when he was in his mid-20s.
"Also, Wales have good, younger centres with the likes of Jamie Roberts, Jon Davies and Scott Williams, so the question is, does Gatland need him?"
CARDIFF BLUES -- G Henson; L Halfpenny, C Laulala, G Evans, T James; D Parks, L Williams; G Jenkins, M Breeze, S Andrews; B Davies, M Paterson; M Molitika, S Warburton (capt), X Rush. Reps: R Williams, J Yapp, S Hobbs, M Cook, J Navidi, R Rees, C Sweeney, R Mustoe.
LEINSTER -- R Kearney; D Kearney, F McFadden, G D'Arcy, A Conway; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, S Cronin, M Ross; D Browne, D Toner; K McLaughlin, S O'Brien, J Heaslip (capt). Reps: A Dundon, H van der Merwe, J Hagan, R Ruddock, L Auva'a, I Boss, I Nacewa, F Carr.
REF -- M Mitrea (Italy).
Cardiff v Leinster,
Live, S4C, 6.15