'I'm absolutely loving it': Gavin Henson relishes rugby league debut

一种s sporting comebacks go, it is certainly out of the ordinary. Thirty‑three caps for Wales, a British & Irish Lion, and one of the most recognisable players of his generation: but on Sunday Gavin Henson will finally scratch his rugby league itch at the age of 39 for a team who have won only one league game in the past three years.

The story of how Henson became the biggest signing in West Wales Raiders’ short history is remarkable enough. After initially finishing his distinguished union playing career with the Dragons in 2019, Henson opened a gastropub down the road from the Raiders’ base in Llanelli. 一夜, the club’s owners approached him to discuss an ambassadorial role with the League 1 club, who play in front of crowds of around 200 and whose squad is made up mainly of part‑time local players.

“It was a chance meeting really,” he recalls. “They wanted me to get some attention for the club, but I’ve always wanted to have a go at rugby league. I asked them to let me have a go at training, and we’ll see what happens. I’m absolutely loving it; it’s a much better game than I thought. It’s very tactical, and I’m learning a lot of new stuff, even at 39.

“It was only supposed to be a bit of fun, but I’ve really got a taste for it. I thought I’d go under the radar but it’s all taken off with all the media stuff, but I guess it’s extra exposure for the Raiders, which is great. Then I find out we’re on TV this weekend so there’s no hiding place for me. For the first time in a long time, I’m a bit nervous.”

Henson’s first game as a rugby league player will take place against the modest backdrop of Stebonheath Park in Llanelli, when the Raiders face Widnes Vikings in the first round of the Challenge Cup, live on the BBC. It is a draw that pits the old of rugby league – Widnes are one of the game’s traditional giants – against the new, and it is an almighty challenge for Henson and the Raiders against a team of whom he has fond memories as a child.

“I remember watching league when I was younger and Jonathan Davies signing for Widnes. My first jersey was a Widnes one my dad brought home after he’d been playing union up north. All the Welsh lads Widnes had, I remember them fondly. It’s a huge game and it’s a shame there’s no fans there because it could have been huge for the club. But the next best thing is to be on TV.”

Henson has bold ambitions for his new career in rugby league, for both himself and his new club. “I hope the Raiders can be a massive team in time – maybe even get to Super League. I enjoy watching international rugby union but, domestically, union has lost its way a bit whereas league is an exciting game.

“If rugby league is clever it could really steal a march on union in Wales, because it’s a better game to watch and play in. It’s a big moment: league could really capitalise. We’ll be looking to try and get promoted this year for sure.”

Henson is one half of an unlikely half-back pairing at West Wales this year, with the former England international and Super League Man of Steel Rangi Chase also signing for the Raiders. “I remember him playing for England and seeing the clips of him on YouTube,” Henson says of Chase. “I’m enjoying playing with him and I’m really learning from him.

“I’d always regretted not giving league a go earlier, especially after how much I’m enjoying training now. I took two years out of union at 27; that would have been a great time to switch. It would have given me a new lease of life. But I’m here now, and I’m excited.”

There is also the small matter of a World Cup this autumn, 也. Could Henson become a dual-code international with Wales if all goes to plan? “I haven’t even played a game yet, so steady on,” he says with a laugh. “But if I’m coming off the field on Sunday as man of the match, who knows.”