Austin Healey Column
Henson not worth the risk
ESPN's Austin Healey
September 22, 2010

Who in their right mind is going to sign Gavin Henson? It may seem strange to kick off my latest Premiership column with thoughts on a player who has never played in England - or anywhere for 18 months - but that hasn't stopped his name hogging the headlines of late.

I can't see any Premiership clubs signing him for a number of reasons. Rugby-wise we just don't know what he brings to the table anymore. He's a mystery, having been out the game for so long, and although he could come back and be fantastic, at the same time he could return and be terrible. And with what is sure to be a hefty asking price, absolutely no one will take that risk.

In addition there's the potential cultural change within a club if they decide to sign him and as a result I can't see many directors of rugby wanting him - if any. And what is he thinking doing Strictly Come Dancing now? That's the sort of thing you do when you have finished playing rugby - not bang in the middle of your career - because it makes it a lot harder to return to the game after.

The media interest a show like that generates and the lifestyle if provides can lead to a lot of other offers, which may be something that he craves, and in that sort of scenario rugby may seem less attractive. It is a strange one that I find hard to explain. At 28 he is in the prime of his playing career so why go and do a TV show? When he gets to 35 I believe he will regret the fact that he did it now.

Anyway, back to the action. With three wins under their belt Northampton continue to impress and look good across the field, but I don't think they are the finished article. If I was in charge there I would be looking to strengthen my options at fly-half where they still appear to be undecided between Shane Geraghty and Stephen Myler. If they had a top-class playmaker in there, a Butch James or a Toby Flood, it could transform them from potential Premiership winners to probable European champions.

The season is young and there is no way they will get through the whole campaign unbeaten. If they were to lose the likes of influential props Brian Mujati and Soane Tonga'uiha then that task will be even harder. But at the moment they are the stand-out side and for that they deserve immense credit.

Things are not so rosy for Leeds at the other end of the table. I've watched all of their games in depth and I see plenty of reason for concern. They had plenty of success last year with an aggressive defence that often dominated the opposition, forcing them into errors which they then capitalised upon. This year they may be talking about consolidation but they have moved away from their basic game and it is costing them. They've changed their pattern of play and are now playing too much rugby and I don't think that they've got the quality of players to do that. They are almost trapping themselves I think.

"The try-machine that is Wasps wing Tom Varndell is another player in-form and to me, he looks like an ideal bench player for England."

Two wins out of three is great news for Exeter but their latest success against Newcastle was probably their worst performance of the season. Fair play to them and in particular to fly-half Gareth Steenson, who ensured they kicked their way to victory. Newcastle will be kicking themselves at the amount of penalties they gave away in that game. They over-competed at the ruck as opposed to just letting Exeter try and break them down.

Leicester's performance against Wasps was another puzzling one and to score no points in the second half is simply unacceptable. I have no idea what happened to them apart from the fact that they lost fly-half Jeremy Staunton. You can argue that they lost their direction but that is no excuse really. The No.12 should step in but it just didn't work out with Billy Twelvetrees and players just disappeared. It's very unlike Leicester to lose that sort of lead and it flipped the form book on its head because the Tigers had previously come good in the second half of their earlier games, whereas Wasps had faltered.

As for eye-catching individual displays, I return to the Saints and the ever-impressive Chris Ashton. He is playing very well and Northampton use him cleverly so you have got to give the coaches plenty of credit. They could have just taken this quick rugby league player and stuck him out on his wing but they didn't. They get him under the ball, coming inside and making half breaks and he's excellent at that. The try-machine that is Wasps wing Tom Varndell is another player in-form with four tries to his name now this season and to me, he looks like an ideal bench player for England. They could stick him on late in the game, throw the ball around and just wait for him to score.

Looking ahead we have another great game at Vicarage Road this weekend with Saracens taking on Northampton and on current form it is likely to be a very close game. Home advantage has been critical up to now - last weekend there was only one game won away from home and there have only been three away wins all season - so you have to favour the home side at the moment.

We haven't seen Northampton under too much pressure defensively as yet, apart from those final minutes against Quins, so there may be some joy for Sarries if they can break Saints down.

Now, I like to end these things on a more light-hearted note so I will be giving Everton a wide berth. Instead, I read with interest a story about Wasps' Joe Worsley this week who was pining for his piano and put his lack of form down to its absence from his house. For those interested, I also required a tune-up to ensure I was on the top of my game - my instrument of choice? The bongos.

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Austin Healey is Lead Analyst for ESPN Rugby

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