From church mouse to saviour, Henson lets his feat do the talking

The shy young man shunned by Wales for almost three years now has the confidence to talk and play a good game, writes James Corrigan
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The Independent Online

The lobby of the hotel tucked away in the countryside flanking Cardiff was rather busier than it might usually have been as the new week was dawning. Men in suits loitered around the foyer, speaking into mobiles to clients who never existed, checking watches for meetings never arranged and shuffling papers for deals that would never be struck.

The doors of the lift slid open and all eyes darted to the household name in the tracksuit who strode out with a swagger that suggested he was perfectly comfortable in his fame. But none of the surreptitious neck-strainers made a move. John Toshack is big, they thought, but not big enough to blow their cover for. They had come to the Vale of Glamorgan for one Welsh hero and one Welsh hero only.

And then he appeared. Hair pointing northwards, cheeks a Bisto brown, legs as smooth as marble; just as they had last seen him (the odd silver boot aside, of course). Gavin Henson picked his way through the outstretched pens and tear-stained programmes, making his tired way to yet another media appointment and you could almost here him mutter "yes, I do shave my legs", "yes, I am super-confident", "no, I was not nervous over that kick", "yes, it was my boyhood dream to beat England". The script might only have been penned a few hours before, but the 23-year-old was as well versed in it as Derek Jacobi is in Hamlet. Only no one was letting this particular young prince slip out of character.

So Henson decided to put straight an oh-so-wise world, which had decided it already knew everything there is to know about this cocky little so-and-so as that ball arched its fateful way between those posts on Saturday. "I'm shy," he declared. Cue stunned silence. If he's shy, then what the hell are we supposed to call Jonny Wilkinson? "It just comes down to rugby, doesn't it? I'm really comfortable with rugby. But off the field I'm not comfortable," he said. "I am a shy person. I don't really speak that much." If his Welsh team-mates did not know him better, they might have laughed their unheralded socks off at such a statement. In the build-up to that epoch-defining victory over England, they could not open a menu without expecting to see the name "Henson" in capital letters. If he is the god his country now swears he is, then God was indeed everywhere.

"Yeah, I had a lot of stick from the other players because we have a wall at our training headquarters with all the newspaper articles stuck on it," he said. "And I just seemed to be totally all over it."

So why did he do all that press then? "That's not my fault, that's the fault of the management for putting me in all these bloody media things all the time," he said with a smirk, although he appreciates there is a method in what Sir Alex Ferguson and other guardians of the precocious would undoubtedly call madness. The tactic was first devised by John Connolly, the wonderfully intuitive Bath coach then Henson's mentor at Swansea, who recognised that this boundless talent would never be given its full expression until freed from the timidity that had plagued the International Rugby Board's International Young Player of the Year in 2001. So every morning when Henson arrived at St Helens, Connolly made his reluctant superstar go into the office to talk to the staff in an effort to draw him out of himself.

"Confidence can take you to places you never dreamt of," said Jonathan Davies, in the wake of Henson's heroics last weekend, and the inside centre's new-found ability to wax lyrical in public has indeed seemed a turning point in the formation of Wales' latest "saviour". When asked how it could be that the last two Welsh coaches ignored him for nigh on three years after making his debut in 2001, Henson replied with a snort: "Yeah, why innit?"

Alan Phillips, the former Lions hooker now Welsh team manager, was around at the time and remembers the young Henson. "He was like a church mouse," he said and local journalists concur. "He was so hard to talk to it hurt," recalled one yesterday. In such a claustrophobic team environment, Henson was told it might be a problem. "Coaches and players have spoken to me and said that I have matured a lot lately," he said. "According to them I was probably a little immature before."

Immature and incommunicative, but now there is the starkest of contrasts, with Henson one of the few sportsmen who can actually play a game as well as he talks it. "Yeah, I built myself up in the papers before the England game," he said, "and it meant I had to deliver. I think I did that. But so, more importantly, did the team."

The two might not be as divorced as Henson suspects they are. Mefin Davies, the veteran hooker, called the Maesteg boy's self-belief "infectious", and it is with this collective sense of their own quality that they fly out to the Italian capital today intent on further raising Welsh rugby from the ruins they so infamously left in Rome two years ago. Even England will be a distant memory when confronted with that piece of redevelopment.

"People won't believe me, but I've forgotten all about the England game now - I've had to," Henson said. "What I, and what we as a team have got to do is back it up in Italy. We've got to put right what happened there last time."

Yes, Henson is "super confident" that Wales will do it, although it is highly doubtful that you will have heard him say as much yet in the build-up to this match. As he left the interview room after this particular session, he turned to the Welsh press officer and pleaded: "Can I have a break from all this for a while then?"

"Yeah, until Wednesday," came the reply, the management hell-bent on refusing any long-term shade to a player who needs the limelight to grow.

But, despite the gel, perma-tan or the shaved legs, privacy is still what this side-stepping paradox craves most. He aborted a night out in Cardiff after the match on Saturday saying "there were too many people around" and fidgets almost uncontrollably when plonked in front of the media. "My family are the only people I really talk to," he said. "They've always believed in me. When I had poor school reports they wouldn't mind - they saw my caps as GCSEs or A-levels. They always believed I was going to make it in rugby because that's all I ever wanted to do."

It is all his nation ever wanted him to do, too, although Wales would not be Wales without at least a love-spoon of pessimism. One of the first well-wishers Henson ran into on Sunday was Toshack, whose squad was to assemble at the Vale of Glamorgan Hotel for last night's friendly with Hungary. "I said well done to the lad, terrific,'' Toshack said. "But I also told him 'can you imagine what they would have been saying if you'd missed that kick'?" Henson never stopped to consider it. It is not in his nature to either think or talk about it.