London Welsh roll the dice
July 9, 2012
Gavin Henson has signed for London Welsh © Getty Images
London Welsh's decision to sign Gavin Henson may not have come as the biggest surprise, having been linked with the centre ever since they overturned a decision to block their ascent to the top flight, but that does not detract from the fact that it remains a major gamble by the Aviva Premiership newcomers.
The Exiles may not have broken the bank to sign Henson, having stressed the need for the 30-year-old to buy into the club's 'team ethic and pay scales', but any investment in a player with such a troubled record can be viewed as significant and by all accounts it is one that no other Premiership club were prepared to make.
The fact that London Welsh is his fifth club in 15 months hints at underlying problems and a potentially career-defining failure to assimilate. But add in the equally damaging off-field incidents including a spat with team-mates in Toulon and a drunken incident that hastened his departure from Cardiff Blues and you hope that his new employers have insisted on a performance-related contract that ensures he must be playing to claim his share of the club's precious budget.
So long and depressing has been Henson's slump that his notable career highlights - including two Six Nations Grand Slam triumphs with Wales - warrant mere addendum-like mentions at the bottom of any story charting his attempts to revive a career that stalled on 34 Test caps with the last of those coming against England last summer.
He will be under pressure to rediscover something at least resembling good form and will also have to shoulder the responsibility of being his club's marquee signing. It will surely test what drive and passion for the sport Henson retains and unless he illustrates he is a team player in every way then this latest chapter in his rugby life will end like so many before it.
The Strictly Come Dancing and Batchelor alumni is clearly not camera-shy and just as well because he should know that there will be no hiding place from this day onwards. It is a challenge he must relish because not only his reputation but that of one of the sport's proudest clubs depends on it.
Any hopes that he can reclaim the kind of form and desire that saw him propel Wales to victory over England at the Millennium Stadium in 2005 - their first victory over England in Cardiff for 12 years - and saw him earn British & Irish Lions honours later the same year are remote at best. The man who will now call the Kassam Stadium home will not be the same player and he has failed to even offer a glimpse of that ability in his limited game time since emerging from his injury woe.
A reunion with his former Ospreys coach Lyn Jones, who will no doubt have been the driving force behind the signing, is a major bonus for Henson having arguably played his best rugby while under his charge but don't expect a Lazarus-like revival. In an honest assessment, the Exiles boss even expressed his own doubts that Henson can reach those lofty heights ever again.
At best they can hope he proves an inspirational presence on the field and guiding hand off it while convincing those around them that they deserve their place in the Premiership - but first of all he will have to convince himself, and his employers, that he belongs on such a stage.
Despite his falling market value, Henson retains a certain level of box office appeal even if the majority of neutral observers are just waiting for the next car-crash moment of his career. The marketing department at London Welsh already face a monumental task to conjure a crowd 56 miles from their spiritual home and even the odd flash of brilliance from Henson could get the turnstiles spinning.
However, his impact could be conversely epic should he prove all his doubters right and fail to deliver on and off the field. With the odds in terms of preparation time for the new season and central funding stacked against them, you cannot begrudge London Welsh's decision to roll the dice.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.