Second Five-Eighth

In the Amlin Challenge Final between Northampton and Bath, as the game was running away from Bath they introduced a familiar face from the bench. No, not Peter Stringer; the other one. Gavin Henson. We were all set to have a good old chuckle as Big Gav took the field, but within a couple of minutes something interesting happened; Big Gav gave two gorgeous passes to put runners outside him into space. It was like a momentary glimpse into a parallel universe where Henson was a dedicated professional who had fulfilled his potential.  A tiny kernel of natural tlent remains!

In the past, we’ve often wondered what the point of clubs like Bath signing players like Gavin Henson is; when a player has failed to learn his lessons over and over again, does the time not come when you simply draw a line through his name? But this served as a reminder that some cases, no matter how lost they appear, can be worth a punt [at the time of writing Danny Cipriani has been recalled by England, and show me someone who isn’t absolutely fascinated as to what will happen next].

Big Gav never had the dedication to his trade to make the most of his ability, and it’s a real pity. Henson was never as good as the likes of Stephen Jones claimed he was, but he wasn’t rubbish either.  Yes, he had flaws, and yes he was a real pain, but his distribution, running and kicking game could all be terrific. In the modern era of bosh-‘em-up rugby ‘second five-eighth’-type inside centres who can pass the ball like a 10 are a precious commodity. As if to underline the point, Matt Giteau gave a scrumptious performance as a distributing 12 in the Heineken Cup final the following day. What a sight it is to behold, and what options it gives a team in attack when the 12 can move the ball so effortlessly!

Ireland’s own ‘playmaking 12’ departs the scene this summer, to little fanfare. Underpowered for the modern game and not benefitting from a ‘good face’, Paddy Wallace was fell just short of being a real test player, but for Ulster he was a classy and highly watchable fulcrum in the backline. In the 44-14 defeat to Leinster in the Heineken Cup final he was sublime. Fortunately, he passes on the torch. Stuart Olding has been injured all season, but will hopefully be back next year. He has a job on his hands displacing Luke Marshall (who isn’t a bad distributor either, but is more of a hard-running player in the Gordon D’arcy mould), but is exactly the sort of player Ulster have been lacking this season: think of all those sieges on the Leinster line in the semi-final that came to nothing because they just couldn’t unlock the door. One would have to suspect he’s on Schmidt’s radar too. Given a lack of real pace and huge players, Schmidt made Leinster the best team in Europe based on super-accurate passing of the ball along the gainline. Olding would be a key asset to replicate that at test level.

So there we have it; Stuart Olding, the new Gavin Henson.