London Welsh 23-28 Saracens, Aviva Premiership
Henson begins road to redemption
Graham Jenkins at the Kassam Stadium
October 7, 2012
Gavin Henson lines up a kick during his Premiership debut for London Welsh © Getty Images
Gavin Henson rolled the dice for the last time at the Kassam Stadium on Sunday and while he may have not won the jackpot there was plenty to suggest that his signature was worth the gamble.
Premiership newcomers London Welsh took a punt on the former Wales international in the summer by offering him yet another chance to redeem himself after the latest in a series of high-profile off-the-field incidents brought a premature end to his latest attempt to rehabilitate his reputation at Cardiff Blues.
That brief flirtation with redemption followed similarly forgettable stints with Toulon and Saracens and Henson's career looked to have reached the end of the road before Lyn Jones, his former coach at Ospreys, drafted him in to bolster the Exiles' squad ahead of their Premiership bow. Injury had to this point prevented him from repaying that faith but on the evidence of his first game they may have bagged themselves one of the signings of the season.
A player of Henson's calibre looked sorely needed as a gutsy but limited Welsh side fell to Premiership giants Leicester and then Harlequins in their opening two games but they defied their critics in seeing off Exeter and Sale and securing a losing bonus point against Gloucester in their most recent outing with fly-half Gordon Ross pulling the strings more than adequately.
Far from Premiership make-weights they suddenly looked capable of beating the odds and preserving their hard-won top flight status - and all this without the man expected to be key to their fortunes. However, Jones had no qualms about sending Henson into battle against one of his former clubs with Ross a little unlucky to be demoted on the back of a man of the match performance.
Henson wasn't given the warmest of welcomes from the Sarries fans, who are seemingly still aggrieved by his decision to swap their club for the south of France, and whose booing brought a pantomime flavour to proceedings but the target of their tongue-in-cheek abuse had no intention of playing the villain.
Assured with the boot, Henson kept his side in the contest while working in the shadow of his Saracens counterpart Charlie Hodgson whose ability to dictate and dominate despite being the 'wrong' side of 30 should hearten his Welsh rival as he plots his return to respectability.
Henson benefited greatly from the efforts of his team-mates who lack nothing in terms of industry and desire. They may not boast the game-breakers of the Premiership's big-hitters like Saracens but they could probably teach many of their rivals a thing or two about team work and commitment - two vital components for Premiership survival.
What they have been missing is that touch of class that can lift a performance from the realms of credible to outstanding. But that search may well be over with Henson delivering a clear reminder of the ability that has earned him 33 Wales caps to date and British & Irish Lions honours.
Talk of further international recognition is a little premature to say the least but his long floated no-look pass to put winger Nick Scott away in the lead up to a try for fullback Tom Arscott was a little special - and alarming if you are his coach.
"What's he doing?" was Jones' initial reaction as he watched Henson loft the ball into a crowd of players but his alarm will have been short-lived will have been swiftly replaced by awe. Jones will need to reacquaint himself with Henson's propensity to conjure something out of nothing as his headline-grabbing recruit grows in confidence while that edge of the seat stuff should also get the turnstiles spinning.
The stage looked set for a dramatic finale as London Welsh peppered their rivals' line in the closing stages in the hope of securing the try that would have handed Henson the chance to win the game but Saracens had not read the script.
The frustration was clearly evident on the part of the hosts as the referee brought a controversial end to proceedings following a collapsed scrum. The Exiles' rugby manager Mike Scott threw his clipboard to the floor as the officials passed by him on their way to the tunnel, painfully aware that every point is going to be vital in what they have admitted themselves is a battle for survival.
Gavin Henson's no-look pass lights up Premiership encounter%]
That disappointment should be tempered by the fact that no other side has notched two tries against Saracens this year, with Leicester and Harlequins among those to have tried and failed, and the signs that Henson could add a new dimension to the Exiles' armoury. But Jones was not getting carried away in his assessment post-game - "His performance was very good" was his restrained evaluation but he insisted that he would not judge anyone too harshly who had just returned from a lengthy lay-off and was playing their first competitive game in seven months.
That will not stop everyone else offering their verdict on Henson with his failure to settle in new surroundings in recent years sure to continue to spark widespread doubts but Jones, who arguably knows the player better than anyone from their previous five-year association, is already won over. "There's the player on the field, there's the player in training and there's the player in the clubhouse and at the moment Gavin has ticked all the boxes," insisted Jones.
Much as he has done since stepping into the last chance saloon of Old Deer Park, Henson avoided the cameras and the questions after the game. This is not the publicity hungry Henson who took to TV dancing shows and dating games in a bid to occupy his time and mind while sidelined from the game through injury and it is an obvious ploy to keep him and the club focused on the task in hand - preserving their Premiership status.
London Welsh and Henson are clearly on an upward curve and the reaction of Jones - "To play as badly as we did and come away with a bonus point is a plus" - should serve as a warning to any other side hoping for a relatively easy ride from the Exiles or their first-choice playmaker.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.