'Elvis' Henson's talent can rock All Blacks and inject self-belief into uncertain Lions

Welsh magician has the confidence to redeem Woodward's monstrous misjudgement in tomorrow's crucial second Test
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The Independent Online

The breaking point of Woodward, the moment when his critics got their strongest sense of impending disaster, was when he announced his first Test squad without the name of Gavin Henson. It seemed not so much a mistake as a monstrous oversight, rather as though the trainer of the Derby winner, Motivator, had simply forgotten to put the dazzling colt among the starters.

Henson may not be as good as Motivator, he may not have the turn of foot we imagine, not when it matters most; he may not get the full trip under the weight and the ruthlessness of Tana Umaga's All Blacks, but he – and all those who believe they have seen in him an authentic flash of potential greatness – were maybe entitled to know a little sooner than this desperate 11th hour.

This conviction could only be enhanced this week when you went from the room in the downtown hotel where Woodward made his mea culpa, admitted that he had got quite a number of things wrong, and found his principal victim, Henson, looking so relaxed he might have already been under the posts.

Said Henson: "Pressure? I don't really understand pressure, – not when I'm playing a match. Yes, it's a massive game this Saturday, but the only time I feel nerves is maybe on the training field... Say I'm kicking goals [no doubt from improbable distances] and am going for five out of five, and I've done four ...well I might feel a few nerves then, but that's it."

Like so many aspects of Henson's celebrated young life, there are hints of contradiction even in this statement of massive confidence. The legend is already established that the youngster beat the English at the Millennium Stadium earlier this year with a howitzer kick that was put over almost as a formality. But then there is a belief that, in fact, his senior colleague, Stephen Jones, doubtful about his own range, gave Henson no option after he had earlier declined the chance of taking a long penalty.

However, the idea of Henson the natural, the free spirit soaring above the concerns of the obsessive Jonny Wilkinson, who claimed what the Welshman considered to be his natural place at No 12 in the first Test, was certainly encouraged in the first hours after Woodward's about-turn. Wilkinson, restored to his old No 10 position in what good judges are convinced is Woodward's final act of misplaced patronage of his World Cup-winning old guard, is the first to admit: "We are completely different people. He [Henson] tells me as soon as a game is over it is forgotten. He is thinking of the next one. I analyse everything that has happened." Another pointer: Henson telling his client newspaper, The Sun: "I can't wait... I'm feeling good, pretty awesome, pretty big... There's no doubt about it, this is the game to be involved in." If you ever hear Wilkinson say that he is feeling "pretty awesome", check for tide levels and lay down some tinned food and plenty of bottled water because the world will be slipping off its axis.

For the moment, Henson is more than anything an idea, a hope, rather than a reality, but if ever a rugby team needed such an injection of self-belief it is surely these no-hope Lions.

There is still, despite unequivocal statements by Woodward and some of his team-mates, much debate about quite how Henson handled the shock of his exclusion from the first Test. Some say he went on a rampage of regret. Others claim he was a model of reflection and calm, simply packing his boots and playing the midweek game with a cold determination to highlight the error of his coach's decision to leave him out of the big game. In another disturbingly disjointed Lions performance, Henson did this spectacularly enough, running in the two decisive tries with a power and a confidence that spoke of deep and easily conjured resources.

With his gelled hair and brooding eyes and a curl of the lip worthy of Elvis Presley, one belief is that his self-preoccupation can veer towards the absolute, but then it is perhaps not a disqualifying mark against his prospects of becoming a great performer.

Plainly there is a thirst for the action and the centre of attention. He sat in the corner of the hotel and said that he wished the game that could easily prove the most important of his life was happening in an hour, not because he saw it as a defining phase of his young career but just because he wanted to play, wanted to feel the expectancy of the big crowd – and his own.

"I don't build any game into a massive thing," he said. "In one way all the games are very similar to me. They don't create nerves, only the excitement of playing, though I have to say it's nice this week to get the feeling that people have wanted to see me in the team... I've been told this quite a bit, and that tells me I have been doing something right." There it was, a hint of that petulance which was said to have sent doors crashing and provoked talk of the possibility of his angry departure from the squad.

"I certainly didn't hide the fact that I was disappointed. Of course I was disappointed," he said. "I believe in my ability and I came here to play. But I think I have showed the right attitude. I'm an honest person."

The new Lions captain, Gareth Thomas, who over the last two years has had a close view of Henson's development in the Welsh Grand Slam team, is in no doubt about the instincts of his young team-mate. "You look at Gavin and you see a natural," says Thomas. "He kicks the ball miles and miles. He has great hands, vision, and temperament. No, pressure is not a problem for him. He feeds off of it."

Henson said, and with no impression that he might see himself as the junior partner, that he will be having a word with Wilkinson some time in the next few days. He said it with a nonchalance that inevitably reminded you of another young Welshmen who came to this country with plans of personal conquest, and pulled them off beyond almost everyone's dreams but his own. It was Barry John in 1971 – the only time the Lions beat the All Blacks in a series – and his partner was that other half-back legend, Gareth Edwards. The senior man asked the new arrival how he liked the ball to be delivered. John said: "Gareth, you just throw it – I'll catch it."

Given all of Wilkinson's trials since his supreme, World Cup-winning moment when he dropped the goal that beat Australia, and the compulsive concentration on detail that has marked all his progress in the game, it is no surprise that he approaches tomorrow's Test in a mood contrasting so sharply with that of his new team-mate. "I have a certain feeling in the pit of my stomach as I approach a game," said Wilkinson. "Gavin seems to enjoy all of it."

This week, Woodward has not been the only coach reproached for neglecting Henson's potential. The former Wales coach Steve Hansen, who has played such an impressive part in the development of the All Blacks pack, was asked why he didn't involve the prodigy in the World Cup action of 2003. "I didn't have a problem with Gavin Henson," said Hansen. "I could see he had the makings of a great player. But he had some issues to resolve with himself and it seems that he has dealt with them."

Well, maybe not quite all of them. The final one awaits examination in the Cake Tin stadium tomorrow. For Henson it is his first great trial and for Woodward, maybe, the last. Only one thing is certain. Whatever happens, their names will always be linked. Whether it will be in sorrow or in joy is maybe the last intrigue of the tour that so many believe is already doomed. Henson is plainly convinced he will be a star. And Woodward? He will settle for any patch of light.

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