For Gavin, it's strictly back down to business

Henson has had an eventful year but now he must prove himself again in his chosen field
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The Independent Online

It may be irreverent, at this festive season, to talk of a second coming. But more than 40,000 will see precisely that at Wembley Stadium this afternoon if Gavin Henson shrugs off his tracksuit and makes his Aviva Premiership bow against London Wasps.

The reverberations are endless. Yes, it is handy for Saracens to be able to whistle up so talented a footballer in the middle of a season when their midfield resources have been diminished by long-term injuries to Derick Hougaard, Kameli Ratuvou and Adam Powell; but further afield, Wales are eager to see if Henson can recover the form that helped them – twice – to the Grand Slam and, down the line in 2013, there is a Lions tour to consider.

The other side of the coin is the marketing dimension. Saracens have struggled to draw five-figure crowds to Vicarage Road and Henson, like him or not, has the persona to put bums on seats. Experience shows that individuals recognisable from television are a drawcard – hence the appearance at Twickenham tomorrow of X Factor stars for Big Game 3 between Harlequins and London Irish.

Henson has been the regular butt of the Strictly Come Dancing judges, which did not stop him reaching the competition's closing stages. He was within a whisker of winning 71 Degrees North and sparked – almost literally – in another reality TV show, Human Guinea Pig. So a different public is there for him who may be interested to see what he does in his other life.

This, though, is a player who has not handled a rugby ball in earnest since April 2009. That is a long, long chunk out of a sportsman's career. In his first coming, between 2001 and 2009, Henson won 31 caps, and he is still only 28; he was one of those teenaged heroes in which Welsh rugby specialises, making his international debut against Japan at the age of 19.

Yet it is still possible to argue that his playing reputation rests on one match: the 2005 Six Nations' Championship game at Cardiff when he kicked the penalty goal that beat England and tackled the young England debutant, Mathew Tait, into next week. That is a slim volume of work for a player of such standing.

Henson was integral to the winning by Wales of the Grand Slam that season, as he was in 2008, but those are the only two seasons in which he has played a complete Six Nations tournament. He toured New Zealand with the Lions in 2005, was overlooked for the first international with the All Blacks, in which he should have played, but appeared in the second when the Lions were carved open, with the diligence of a surgeon, by Dan Carter.

But what did emerge from that most disappointing of tours was how much Henson cared, about the quality he believed he could bring to a team and can bring again. There is a shyness to Henson which is at odds with how he is publicly perceived and the more unfortunate episodes which have cropped up in his life, such as the train journey from London to Swansea two years ago when the behaviour of a group of which he was part was so offensive to other travellers that the British Transport Police were called in.

The years when Henson was growing up, as young men do? The years when he was, in his own words, "watching my body disintegrate in front of my own eyes". Since 2005 he has damaged shoulder, ankle, Achilles tendon and struggled with a pelvic disorder which has inhibited his running so drastically that he believes he has been unable to sprint full-out during that period.

Rest from the physical demands of the game has been the answer, a self-enforced rest which, to the frustration of his former employers in Swansea, the Ospreys, has ended now in England. But that, too, should be part of the Henson catharthis; ask him if he believes that the last two years have been wasted – years in which his rugby life has been on hold – and the answer is emphatically in the negative.

"I needed it, I needed the break, my competitiveness went and I needed to address that," Henson said. "I was a full-time dad for a year and I would never regret that. The TV programmes have been great experience, I think I'm more confident now." Mention of his children, Ruby and Dexter, is a reminder that not all has been well on the domestic front either, since Henson is now parted from Charlotte Church, their mother.

It is evident that his family will be the determining factor in his future. "I have been experiencing life and 2010 has been a mixture," he said. "My kids are in Wales and they will be starting school in a couple of years, but if Charlotte stays in Cardiff and I can see them regularly, there may be no reason to move back if it works for me in London.

"But Wales will always be home, and if I do go back [his contract with Saracens runs only until May], hopefully it will be with the Ospreys."

The ambition to play again at the highest level is writ large in Henson's plans: to return to the Wales squad, to give himself a chance of appearing in next autumn's World Cup, to tour again with the Lions, to play for the next eight years.

All those things depend on others: on producing for Saracens the talent that so excited the rugby world 10 years ago that he was named the International Rugby Board's young player of the year; on convincing Warren Gatland, the Wales coach, that he is worth another shot.

"We know his quality as a player but he has been out of the game for a while," Gatland said during last month's international campaign. "If his club form's not good enough, he won't be selected. He has been through quite a lot over the last year or so and it will be good to see him back playing rugby."

Nor is Brendan Venter, the Saracens director of rugby and a former international centre himself, disguising the hurdles. "It will take him a while, no matter how talented he is," said Venter, who returns to his native South Africa on 10 January but will remain as a long-distance technical director with the club.

"Boxing Day will be a good start, when he gets an opportunity on the bench, but we have seen his quality in training," he added. "His decision-making, his skills, he passes beautifully, he's got a step, he defends very well. He can play anywhere in the inside backs, 10, 12 or 13.

"But at this stage with Gavin, everything is geared to the here and now. If the relationship works well and he gets back into the Wales squad, it will be a victory for us because he will have been playing well for Saracens. Let's not put pressure on each other and, come April, we will see where we are."

Henson has never doubted his capabilities on a rugby field and has learned more about handling the slaps in the face that life deals you. "I'm not fearful about returning, I'm really excited about it," he said. So much so that he would rather be starting today, to get that first knock, hear the first piece of sledging, settle back into the world which once looked to be at his beck and call and may yet be so.

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