THE LEICESTER back row will be dusting off their tuxedos in anticipation of giving Gavin Henson a dancing lesson at the Kassam Stadium, come September 2, writes Richard Grainger.
For 30-year-old Henson, the lifeline thrown by London Welsh this week may well represent the last chance saloon, and the Premiership new boys must be hoping that the ice cubes stay on the right side of the bar this time.
“A line has to be drawn under that by everybody,” Exiles’ Head Coach Lyn Jones told BBC Sport, in reference to Henson’s most recent misdemeanour. It seems likely that Henson, who has won 33 caps and scored 133 points for Wales, will slot into the fly half berth. “We see him primarily as a No10 — we’ve got Gordon Ross and we’ve got Alex Davies, but we think he’ll add power in there as well,” Exiles’ Managing Director John Taylor told Rugby World.
This will be Henson’s fifth club in two years, but the move reunites him with Jones. The pair were last together when Jones coached the Ospreys between 2003 and 2008 — undisputedly Henson’s halcyon years. And with Rob Lewis’ departure to Cardiff Blues, this will mean it’s all change at half-back next term. But will Matt Keyte, recently recruited from Bath Academy fill Lewis’ boots at No9? Taylor says: “We’ve by no means finished our recruitment… a scrum half with proven ability at the very top level is also very much one of our priorities.”
The Exiles face a Premiership baptism of fire with their first top flight opponents at the Kassam being last season’s runners-up, Leicester Tigers. “We might catch them cold,” says Taylor, “… we might pull off a surprise there. But we would be very, very naïve to even pretend that Leicester in absolute full mode with all their stars are a side that we could realistically target.” And if they do pull off a surprise, Harlequins, the reigning Premiership champions, will be waiting to congratulate them at the Twickenham Stoop a week later.
However, Taylor, whose winning kick at Murrayfield for Wales in 1971 was described by one Welsh journalist as, “the greatest conversion since Saint Paul,” is less than sanguine about the Exiles’ Premiership prospects. “We certainly know we’re going to be in the bottom four and it’s a question of making sure that we’re not bottom.”
But one crucial area that London Welsh appear to have successfully addressed already is getting financial backing for a Premiership campaign. “We’ve already got eight new backers on board before the start of the season,” says Taylor. “They are all Welshmen bar one. Of course we’ll lose money over the first couple of years, but the way that the Premiership is going in terms crowds, in terms of sponsorship and the whole commercial side, there is a realistic chance of it being a proper business.”
Taylor also pays tribute to current club sponsor Kelvin Bryon, who will remain involved. “He’s done an absolutely fantastic job — he’s been a real saviour, literally. This time three years ago, we were actually in administration and Kelvin has funded most of the fight back from there. One of the premises of driving onwards and upwards was that he couldn’t possibly be expected to finance a Premiership campaign.”
But will the move to the Kassam Stadium risk losing one fan base in pursuit of another?
“To be honest,” says Taylor, “Our fan base in London is aging and diminishing and we have to get a new fan base in any case. In the Championship you really haven’t got a platform to build on — the Premiership gives us a platform to build a fan base. We will certainly be targeting Oxford and the Oxford area. I think everybody is aware the reason we have gone to Oxford first up is because that is the only place that we can play next season where we felt we were going into an absolutely first class stadium that could satisfy all the requirements of playing in the Premiership. It wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t a choice that was made lightly, but in the end, it was the only choice.”
There will be no shortage of interest in this season opener in Oxford. “Obviously,” says Taylor, “it’s a terrific fixture for our first game at the Kassam.”
And with the Sky cameras present, the stage is set for Henson to ‘skip the light fandango and turn cartwheels ‘cross the floor’. Now that promises to be one dance-off I don’t want to miss.