Challenge Cup: Gavin Henson excited by West Wales Raiders opportunity

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Gavin Henson
Date: Thursday, 11 February Starts: 17:00 GMT Coverage: Live on BBC Sport

During a near-20-year career in rugby union, Gavin Henson operated at the highest echelons of the game – representing the British and Irish Lions, starring 33 times for Wales and playing across Europe’s elite leagues.

Now, at the age of 39, the one-time poster boy of the 15-man code is throwing himself into a new opportunity. Rugby league.

He is starting out with West Wales Raiders – right at the bottom of the professional game in League One.

Henson’s Raiders debut, fitness and selection permitting, could come in the first round of 2021’s Challenge Cup, the oldest domestic cup competition in league’s 126-year history, when it gets under way in March.

Not that he needs any introduction, having been brought up to speed with the cup’s heritage and history by Martin Offiah – a four-time winner in his time at Wigan – while filming the Hunted TV show.

“It is special,” the Bridgend-born fly-half said. “[Martin] was forever telling me about his statue at Wembley and to be fair I can remember watching some of his greatest moments at Wembley on TV.

“That probably made me have even more interest in to be honest. I’m very much looking forward to it and looking forward to see who we get in the cup.”

Getting up to speed with league

Gavin Henson

West Wales Raiders have had a nomadic existence since entering the league as South Wales Scorpions in 2009, then South Wales Ironmen, and since 2018 the Raiders following a move from Merthyr Tydfil to Llanelli.

While the subsequent seasons have been tough results-wise there is a sense of progression for 2020, as former England half-back Rangi Chase has also been added to the squad.

Henson is enthusiastic about his switch, despite the “flat-out” conditioning he has been undertaking to get up to speed after a sabbatical from professional sport.

There is more workload – “Thirty tackles as opposed to eight on a game day in union,” he says of one session – and the nuances of the game are also a new challenge.

But, there are no airs and graces; he is enjoying mucking in with his new team-mates despite the aches and pains.

“I had my first session last Tuesday, so three sessions in now and it’s pretty tough,” he said. “To be fair I haven’t trained for two years, I haven’t been in the gym for two years, don’t know whether a bit of that or rugby league training is savage, so I’m a bit behind.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen on game day in rugby league, I’m just trying to get myself ready for it now.

“I didn’t have to, I’m quite competitive, missing something, obviously I’ve been messing around playing football but missing the contact side, it’s nice to get a ball in my hand.”

“There’s room for two codes”

Brewery Field in Bridgend

Despite such a rich of history of Welsh players contributing to league – thanks to the achievements of Jim Sullivan, Gus Risman, Billy Boston, Colin Dixon, Roy Francis, Jim Mills, Clive Sullivan and Jonathan Davies to name just eight – union remains the king code in Wales.

The different seasons do allow players to mix in some cases, playing union in winter and league in summer, which has helped modern-day talent such as Regan Grace, Ben Flower and Gil Dudson to make their way in Super League.

That is something Henson can see flourishing, the chance for would-be rugby players to try both sports, give to both codes, driven by success for clubs like West Wales Raiders.

“Rugby league is not a big sport in Wales but we’re trying to change that,” he said. “If I can help out in any way that would be great as well.

“There’s enough room for union and league in Wales, as totally different games, but it’d be great for youngsters to try both really.”

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