The Gavin Henson I spoke to at the start of the 2014/15 season – when this interview was conducted – was rejuvenated in mind and body. He praised the strength and conditioning staff at Bath Rugby for the “best pre-season I’ve ever had”, much of which had been spent in Portugal. “I haven’t had too many pre-seasons in my career due to injuries, summer tours and stuff with Wales back in the past,” said Henson. Next season he will be joining a very familiar set-up at Bristol Rugby, resplendent as it is with former Wales and Ospreys colleagues. For now, he is making the gradual return to the playing field after an Achilles injury.
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Although he is not bitter in saying it, Gavin Henson calls rugby a “ruthless business”. Against Brive in the Challenge Cup quarter-final last season he won Man of the Match in a performance hailed as a rolling back of the years for Henson. It was to be the last match he started in 2013/14. “I understand [the nature of professional rugby], and that’s why I wanted to hit the ground running this season and try and get my performances up from the start.”
After a self-imposed leave of absence from the game in 2009, there are hopes that Henson could experience an Indian Summer akin to the one enjoyed by his former Lions teammate, Jonny Wilkinson. It’s an optimism he himself shares. “I like to think so. I took a lot of grief for taking two years out of rugby, but at the time I was hurting mentally and physically.”
He regrets that a lot of people misunderstood the reasons for his sabbatical. “I needed something to refresh me. I’m hoping I can get that back now and play a bit longer. I do look after myself very well, and I can look up to Peter Stringer from that point of view. There are enough players out there to draw inspiration from to still play at a high level, so that’s the plan.”
The departure of his longtime coach Lyn Jones was also one of the main reasons he took time out of the game. The absence of the avuncular, enigmatic Jones might have been the final straw for him in Swansea. “It wasn’t quite the same,” Henson says of Jones’s exit – although both were reunited at London Welsh for a single season in 2012. “I leapt at the chance to work with him again. It was a pity we couldn’t stay up, but in light of that it gave me the opportunity to sign with Bath.”
“I would say I’ve got a lot of good friends from my time at London Welsh, but it looks like they got a clearout and they’ve signed 25 new players – I didn’t even know that was allowed! It’s a different team now. I had a great time at Welsh, and they backed me to play 10 there, which was nice.”
Despite shaking the earth for Wales in the 12 jersey – until the crown was passed to incumbent Jamie Roberts – the former IRB Junior World Player of the Year is adamant his best position is fly-half. “At 12 you get that physical side, which I do like, but I like to run the game and have that influence all week with the plays. It’s what I really enjoy, but so long as I’m out there playing.”
Teammates speak of Henson as the consummate professional – jaws reportedly dropped in his first training session with Bath, so good were some of the skills he displayed – and someone who is always looking to improve his game. For instance, he says he felt “a little bit passive in defence last season, so I want to get a little more aggressive. That’s one of my goals this season, to try to get that back into my game. I know I’m capable of it.”
Henson – the man who put in some of the most famous hits in a Welsh jersey – passive in defence? Surely not. “I’d like to get back to [that level]. I’ll do the little extras to get that right. I do like the defensive side, and it’s something I want to make a big improvement on now.”
On the subject of big hits, Henson reveals that he once entertained the notion of making a move to rugby league. “I had my eye on Celtic Crusaders when they were up at Brewery Field, because I’d go down and watch them every weekend, especially when I had time out from rugby union. I was thinking about it.”
At Bath, he is encouraged by the head coach to watch clips from the 13-man game, which Henson says provides him with a new way of looking at the game. “Maybe I would suit league. It is intriguing, but I don’t know if I could cross codes at this stage of my career.” It’s too early to say whether we’ll see a 10-12 axis featuring Henson and Sam Burgess in action together for Bath, but the Welshman is excited about the prospect. “Sam is such a big guy. We’ve all seen what Sonny Bill has done, and we’re putting him in that category already, so it’s pretty cool to be training and potentially playing alongside him.”
Fortunately for Burgess, his move from league to union has been more fluid than the one experienced by some of those who came before him; Iestyn Harris, for instance. “It was difficult for Iestyn. Maybe he didn’t realise what Wales was like, especially with tens,” suggests Henson, with more than a hint of empathy. “I thought he played really well for Cardiff, but it didn’t quite happen for him on the international stage. Whether that was down to the coaching that was in place at the time, I don’t know. He should have been given more of a chance, but he was a quality player and he had all the skills.”
Despite the fake social media accounts out there under his name, he has never tweeted or Facebooked in his life. At one point in his career this might have been for the best, but the stream of support he now gets from Bath and Wales supporters alike is a belated sign of the high regard in which they have come to hold him.
How is his relationship with the fans? “I spend a lot of time with them, talking to them after the games. I always like to hear their viewpoint. I like to hear what they think about the game. I feel that support when I come on, or when I’m starting.” And when he’s playing away from home? “I enjoy the banter from the away supporters who give me a bit of stick. I’m an easy target that way, but I’ve always had that throughout my career and I kind of enjoy that. I’ve always felt it’s an entertainment business, so that’s the way I treat it.”
It strikes me that the public perception of Gavin Henson is markedly different to the one possessed by those that know him. “Exactly, and I understand those perceptions and that’s fine,” he says with a smile. “They give some gyp from the stands, and I obviously hear that because I’m not quite in the zone, but when I’m on the field I don’t really hear it.”