Some people you feel need to be in the spotlight. Whether they deserve it/whether it’s for reasons good bad or indifferent/whether there’s cultivation of the scene or some actually rather innocent flame and moth thing going on (often with a predictably brief lifespan and grisly result) some folks do finish up famous.

In the case of sportsmen and to a lesser extent sportswomen, increased quality brings increased exposure; not in a meritocratic way but more likely through the twisted prism of the media, contingent as it is on perceptions of celebrity and interest factored or moulded around the personality.

Apparently (and quite possibly truly) in the wider mix of Talent, there are people we really want to know about; and there are also people who really want us to know about them. Many of the more blatantly aspiring I personally want to crush slowly under my relentless heel but this may be more of a reflection of my Mark E Smith-affected contempt for shallow fame than some damning indictment of the star as an alleged individual.

Now parallel to or maybe increasingly morphing into these sporting or non-sporting Celebrity Lives is that steroid-abusingly modern phenomena, the TV Reality/Wannabe Thing, where shows typically presidentially and judgementally directed by an over-groomed media-ape spool endlessly into our living rooms. ‘Tis a feature of modern living unattractive to some of us – the consumptive force of this stuff being completely predicated on the notion that we must, surely(?) want to either eat cockroaches or sing and dance more or less compellingly to a screamingly juvenile audience in order to er… win. The implication being that life will get better if we do clamber up that Pyramid of the Disappointed on the way to this peak; this peak of fame, where we feel surely that wonders – untold wonders – await in the shape of… the shape of… what, exactly?

Money certainly. Possibly a boy or girlfriend to cherish and parade. Something… you know… better.

There once was a boy with gifts rising appropriately in step with these all-new, fascistically-materially-focused times. He had a good look; powerful thighs and that essential Action Man torso required of the Sports Celebrity Hunk. He seemed independently(?) to decide that shaving his legs and acquiring a suspiciously orange tan might be central to a successful image in this excitingly fickle era. What controlled or impelled this urge may be beyond discovery, it being characteristic of this particular athlete that things were instinctively or apparently casually and often unwisely done. His name was Gavin.

Gavin captured the hearts of many on both sides of the gender divide; the Sauvage Sweetie of South Wales, once exposed, ticking all manner of differently oriented boxes. In time the increasingly lovely and recently memorably articulate Charlotte Church fell in with him, no doubt finding comfort both in his residence (like her, with her) in this bewitchingly unreal cloud and in his stolid proto-manliness. It seemed to last; and then it didn’t. Is it now cruel to suggest she’s far too good for him, she in her Leveson-enhanced maturity?

Whatever. Gavin’s profile meanwhile back then – in rugby/for Wales/in the papers – had soared, justifiably, in the sense that now he was a real presence on the rugby pitch. He seemed at ease within the Big Match Spotlight in a way that very often indicates bonafide sporting class. For a while the most theoretically testing moments provided the place where his already slightly worrying mix of gifts and poses could actually be; where this awkward pup might most fully, apparently, be himself – or project some ‘best of himself’ onto the public consciousness.

He gave us properly fully grown-upped sporting memories; by welcoming the genuinely mercurial Matthew Tait of England (crucially) to international rugby with the kind of province-lifting tackle that altered the physical geography of both countries. By hoofing the oval ball intercontinentally distant but still with smart-weaponlike accuracy – especially, my memory suggests, when most eyes were upon him. Afficianados – often begrudgingly due to the continuing flirtations with unrugbylike arrogances or extra-curricular indulgences – conceded amidst their head-shaking appreciations that he had ‘great hands’, that he was a proper player; there was a sense that Henson was legitimate and deserving of a place within the much-admired Welsh pomp. At times he undeniably drove this pomp, such was his powerful running and subtly timed, natural offloading to colleagues in space. He played centre outstandingly now and he was a pretty complete package. But there were distractions.

Gavin was handsome and strong and already famous. He seems always to have enjoyed – either in isolation or in tandem – that fatal combination of attention and booze. When TV stuff suggested itself into his life some years ago the worry that rugby would simply not be enough began to take hold; to eat away at us (those of us who feared for a special but vulnerable talent) as well as him. He started to do more telly than sport.

He did Strictly Come Dancing, in which he showed admirable stickability in fact, for he had begun as a plodder and then hauled himself into contention. His physique proudly and arguably crassly unleashed, he ‘gave it everything’ to earn the ‘respect’ of judges and public alike; and he succeeded, actually, I think. Housewives loved him, families voted ‘Gav’, blokes – again begrudgingly I suspect – nodded quiet approval. ‘Cos Gavin had really poured himself into it. The thought now arises that it might have been good had he managed to apply the same degree of commitment and determination to the later stages of his rugby career. It seems clear that these powers existed in him, were available to him but… we all make choices.

This boy Henson, this man-cub has always been flawed. Many scoffed at the early image-consciousness; haircuts and tans and ‘inevitable’ column-friendly relationships. The apparent dumbness – if that’s what it was – the life as sensitivity by-pass. He was hard to take seriously and the unfolding ‘stories’ tended to do him no favours. The sense, on reflection, that he never actually had a grip, or that the thing wasn’t rooted. Ironically, that this magnificently powerful specimen had little power, little control. And all too quickly there was precious little sport and when there was it felt somehow fraudulent; Henson as flitting mercenary – latterly.

Sure, injury has played a role in this disappointing spiral. (I wonder, incidentally if the presumably advised but surely unnecessary bulking up of his frame contributed negatively to his later susceptibility to absences?) But it feels, does it not, like we’ve been here before, depressingly, with unnamed but familiar sporting heroes. Guys or gals who abused and then burned out their shining star. Didn’t we, in this latest episode, to be blunt, ‘all see it coming?’

That inevitability does fascinate. Is the quantative scale of our collective disappointment actually warping the percentages here? Does the fact of Gav’s exposure make it all the more thuddingly sad/infuriating/relevant to Our Times? (Delete where applicable or phone whichever extension.) Opinion itself bulges; swells; because either we’ve always viewed the man as some spoilt arse, or, more sympathetically maybe, as some attention junkie; implying the poor boy can’t help himself. I’ve seen obituaries, effectively already and I’ve seen the word ‘Shakespearian’ tagged to this latest slither of the Henson soap. After a series of more or less disgraceful exits from pretty mighty rugby clubs in the last year or so, rugby sages might feel entitled to summarily dismiss the sideshow that Henson had become; but typically they don’t. Not without a hint of a “What if…?”

Because – those of you who may not really know – Gav really was a talent; at his peak, close to the best Centre in European rugby. When he was actually there, doing it, on the pitch.

One thought on “Henson.

  1. I think at his best he was a great player. In the parting from Charlotte, who had lived an awful lot of life in her career before they became a couple, she grew up and as you say matured and he did not and may not be ready for that step yet. I am always sadden by the apparent waste of talent. You feel you would like to shake him and say you have all this ability that many would give anything to have and you cant seem to focus.

    The injuries for sure have not helped and although he has not gone off the rails, I would suggest that Michael Owen has had a simular dip in his career following several rotten injuries and the difficult fight back to fitness and then form. The difference is probably state of mind in how one is determined and long term focused, whereas Gavin needs to be out there and doing something. I enjoyed his jaunt on strictly, but felt a bit like Robbie Savage, perhaps we could have waited until he retired. sport is a wonderful, passionate and beautiful thing. We need our characters and their talent to keep it that way.

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