By Sarah Mockford, Rugby World Features Editor
GAVIN HENSON made his long-awaited return to Test rugby against the Barbarians on Saturday afternoon. He’d been out of the international arena for two years and 75 days – and was given precisely 61 minutes to prove that he still had the talent to be a key man for Wales. So how did the 29-year-old centre fare?
Well, there was some good, some bad and a couple of ugly kicks. He was given a not-so gentle reminder of the rigours of international rugby within the first five minutes when he had to stop the rampaging France centre Mathieu Bastareaud, who is pushing 18st and looks like rugby’s Mr T, a metre short of the Welsh line.
After his defence had held firm, he got the ball in his hands in attack and with his second touch threw a miss-pass that allowed George North to sprint over for Wales’ first try. In fact, his distribution was the highlight of his performance; he showed some lovely touches with soft hands to the fore. Wales’ midfield has often been one-dimensional this season with plenty of hard runners, so it’s clear that his passing skills could be a welcome addition.
The same couldn’t be said for his kicking game, the couple of grubbers he put in amounting to nothing and simply handing the Barbarians an opportunity to counter-attack – and this is a team that needs no second invitation to run the ball back. Doing just that brought them a last-gasp 31-28 win over Wales.
Overall it was an average display from Henson, he himself said he was “bitterly disappointed”. He didn’t have the huge influence on proceedings that would have been expected by the hype his return had generated. His running game was never given an opportunity to shine and he didn’t seem to click with unfamiliar players around him. His lack of rugby in the past two years was obvious, never more so than when he was replaced by Scott Williams. The debutant fizzed when he arrived midway through the second half and slotted into the all-Scarlets midfield with ease, his first act to make a 30-metre break down field.
As part of Wales’ 45-man World Cup training squad, Henson has the next few weeks and months to form more of an understanding with players and grease the attacking skills that have grown somewhat rusty. He will surely get another opportunity to prove himself in the August warm-up games and Warren Gatland would love him to rediscover the form of the 2008 Grand Slam campaign.
Off the field Henson dominates the headlines like few other rugby players, but he needs his performances on the pitch to warrant such coverage. At his best Henson has the X-factor and he has the ability to ignite a back-line that has stuttered for the past couple of years – but whether he can get his game up to scratch in time for this year’s World Cup will come down to his own determination. His versatility – he can play centre, fly-half and full-back – make him an ideal choice to take to New Zealand, but Gatland will want to see improvements before giving Henson another stamp in his passport.