Gavin Henson: Enter the dragon

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The Independent Online

Down by the River Taff in Cardiff, at about 6.30 this evening, there is every possibility that a massive cheer will perk up the wilting daffodils, and perhaps even rouse the ghosts of Richard Burton, Dylan Thomas and every other deceased Welshman. It will be a cheer celebrating the feat of the Wales rugby union team in achieving the coveted Grand Slam – which means a victory in every game in the Six Nations championship – for the second time in four years.

To bag the Grand Slam, the Welsh players must first overcome the formidable French, their closest pursuers at the top of this year's championship table. They will therefore be more than usually reliant on the leader of their back division, the talismanic inside-centre Gavin Henson, who has never known what it is like to start a Six Nations match and end up on the losing side.

Of the 10 matches in which he has played all 80 minutes, Wales have won every time, and it appears as if Henson might just be leading the red dragonhood out of the long shadow cast by the teams of the halcyon 1970s, when Wales, inspired by great players such as Barry John, Gareth Edwards and J P R Williams, won seven championships and three Grand Slams.

Moreover, Henson's record is helped as much by the matches he has missed as those he has graced. He cannot be held even partly to blame for the disastrous Welsh campaign in last year's World Cup, because he wasn't picked for the squad, the then-coach Gareth Jenkins concluding that his fitness, following an Achilles tendon injury, was in doubt. So the 26-year-old's star is high, and he suddenly finds himself featuring in newspapers for most of the right reasons, instead of the wrong ones.

It is less than four months since a female primary school teacher told a rapt media that her train journey from London to Cardiff had been made "hellish" by Henson and three friends, who were celebrating a 19-8 victory by his club side Ospreys, away at Harlequins. Henson, whose form had previously been sporadic, had scored all the points, prompting his coach Lyn Jones to declare that "his fitness has improved, his confidence has shot up; he's a different person at the moment".

Yet within hours, according to the teacher, he was orchestrating a beer-fuelled game of forfeits on the 19.37 from Paddington, during which one of his mates urinated on the floor. When a fellow passenger remonstrated with them, they reportedly abused her, calling her a "fat bitch". The teacher herself was spat at, and was even offered a DNA test by the agitated train manager because she had saliva on her clothes. "I teach in a South Wales primary school and we have 30 profoundly disabled children," she told the South Wales Echo. "We do an awful lot with sports in the school and we look up to these people. Gavin is a hero to our children. How could he behave like this?"

The train was duly met by British Transport Police and the four men were charged with disorderly conduct. However, the Crown Prosecution Service later dropped the case, citing "insufficient evidence". Henson was instead tried, and excoriated, in the court of public opinion. Not for the first time he was lambasted for his celebrity lifestyle with his girlfriend, the singer Charlotte Church (even though the birth of their baby Ruby last September had curtailed their social life considerably). Meanwhile, the rugby cognoscenti sneered that, talented as he was, he had not done enough on the pitch to behave like a rock star off it.

Henson's reputation has been rehabilitated, though, by his performances in this Six Nations championship. The head coach of Wales, a tough, no-nonsense New Zealander by the name of Warren Gatland, and his assistant Shaun Edwards, an even tougher character from Wigan – neither of whom has ever been known to gel his hair into spikes or to shave his legs before applying fake tan, as Henson has – have missed few opportunities to shovel praise in the direction of their newsworthy No 12. Could it be that, at last, Henson is on the brink of becoming better known for his rugby than for his vanity, his silver boots, his famous girlfriend and his antics on trains?

If he manages it, then, given the priorities of certain sections of the British media, it will be some achievement. In Gavin and Charlotte they have a marriage of sport and entertainment almost as alluring as that provided by David and Victoria Beckham, and with South Wales being that bit more accessible than Los Angeles, the Henson-Churches constitute a rolling news story that the red-tops will not relinquish lightly.

A couple of years ago, I spent an afternoon at the Cardiff home of a former captain of Wales and another gigantic figure from the 1970s, John Dawes. At the end of his road there was a small, apparently ever-present camp of photographers. "Gavin and Charlotte's house is up there," said Dawes, bemusedly. It wasn't like that in his day.

Still, the odd bit of misbehaviour notwithstanding, there is something appealingly wholesome about the Henson-Churches that the Beckhams can't match. Charlotte went into labour in a B&Q car park, and later reported that her contractions had stopped them going for a meal in a Toby Carvery. Inside two unusually talented bodies, there is a reassuringly ordinary boy and girl struggling to get out.

The boy began life in Bridgend on 1 February 1982. His father Alan was a decent rugby player who captained his club Maesteg, so young Gavin's genes were oval-shaped, but it was a wizard with the round ball who first caught his eye. What he liked most about the Manchester United footballer Eric Cantona, however, was not his skill but his style, in particular the way he turned his collar up. Out of Eric the Red, Henson the showman was born.

It was as well that he shone on the rugby field: a D was the best mark he mustered in his GCSEs at Brynteg comprehensive. But he had shown enough potential by the time he was 18 for three professional clubs to offer him terms. Swansea offered him £5,000 to sign, Llanelli £10,000 and Bridgend £15,000. With admirable maturity he chose Swansea, whose set-up impressed him the most.

His career was up and running, although a badly broken leg in 1999, when he was 17, had stopped him running anywhere for almost six months. He was operated on at the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bridgend (resident orthopaedic surgeon, J P R Williams), and when the plaster was removed he was so "disgusted" by the amount of hair that had grown on it that he reached for a razor.

"I really had no choice but to shave the leg," he later recalled. "People think it's a vanity thing but it's not (because) when you've done one leg you have to do the other as well. And once you've started shaving your legs, you have to do it all the time." Not a vanity thing? Some of us are unconvinced. But Henson doesn't mind the charge. "What I do with my appearance is directly related to how I feel about myself as a player," he insists. "I need to see that I look good, and that then gives me the confidence to go out on the pitch and play the way I know I can."

To some old-timers in rugby, his appearance remains suspiciously effete. Yet it is for an act of supreme sporting machismo that he will be remembered: in the Wales v England Six Nations match in 2005, he gave the young English debutant Mathew Tait a torrid afternoon, highlighted by one extraordinary tackle in which he crunched into Tait and carried him horizontally off the ground for a metre or two, resisting the opportunity to dump him illegally on his head, but only just. It evoked memories of one the hardest-tackling of all international centres, his compatriot Scott Gibbs, and any doubts about the ruggedness of a fellow who shaves his legs were buried in that instant. Besides, he then showed that he was as nerveless as he was fearless by slotting a 44m penalty over the posts to pip the English 11-9 before an ecstatic Cardiff crowd aware that they had a new hero.

He has tested their affection on several occasions since, not only with the rumpus on the 19.37 from Paddington but on several other occasions when he has behaved indecorously in public. Also, he put his name to an ill-advised book, My Grand Slam Year, published in the autumn of 2005, in which he not only accused Brian O'Driscoll, effectively his counterpart in Irish rugby, of trying to gouge his eyes during a Six Nations match, but also criticised several of his Welsh teammates.

He later told the press that a team meeting had been called by his fellow players in which he apologised, after they had "made it clear to me that they were unhappy with some of the things in the book". One can only guess at some of the exchanges in that meeting, and just how they made things clear to him. Angry Welsh rugby players are not known for their politesse.

Henson has come through all these various spats with his carefully coiffed head held high. He was undoubtedly one of the principal architects of the 2005 Grand Slam, and, should he loom large again today and help Wales to prevail against France, he can go home to Charlotte and Ruby in their sumptuous house in Saint-y-Brid, a village just outside Bridgend, and tell them that he has written his name into the annals of the principality, for all the right reasons.

A Life in Brief

Born 1 February 1982, Bridgend, South Wales.

FAMILY Has a daughter, Ruby Megan, with partner Charlotte Church.

EDUCATION Brynteg comprehensive school, Bridgend.

CAREER Joined Swansea RFC at 18 and was named the International Rugby Board's international young player of the year in his second season. In 2003, he signed for Ospreys RFC and made his debut for Wales against Japan. A year later, against the same opposition, he scored a Welsh record of 14 conversions from 14 attempts. In 2005, he won the Celtic Cup with Ospreys, scoring 24 of his side's 29 points in the final, and also helped Wales to their first Six Nations Grand Slam in 27 years. He was subsequently selected for the Lions' tour but later chastised for comments he made about other players and coaches in his book My Grand Slam Year. He missed all last year's major tournaments through injury but has played in every game of the current Six Nations.

He says: "I love rugby and I love watching soccer as well, but I hate the fact that soccer is known for being a bigger game than rugby. My goal is to try to get rugby bigger than soccer – and, if that means being really fruity, so be it."

They say: "Gavin is a great player but he was thrust into the limelight a bit too soon and the expectation proved too great. His attitude is better now. With his hairstyle and flashy boots, you can see he enjoys the attention." Jonathan Davies, former Wales international

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