Henson ready to make the hair stand on end

Wales look to a sculpted playmaker to realise the promise he showed as a youth and light up the midfield against the powerful South Africans today. He talks to Chris Hewett

Bob Dwyer, the Australian sage who coached the Wallabies to their first world title in 1991, once said of the New South Wales forward Michael Brial: "How the hell can I pick a bloke for a Test match when he spends half the game making sure his hair is in place?" Had Dwyer ever worked with Gavin Henson, the perma-tanned youngster whose appearance in the Red Dragon midfield against South Africa this afternoon is the talk of Wales, he would have been at extreme risk from spontaneous combustion. Only one man on the planet spends more time organising his precious locks, and Barry Manilow is not a rugby player.

Henson, a gel manufacturer's dream if ever there was one, also has a penchant for fancy footwear - white boots, silver boots, sky-blue pink boots. He has no sense of shame, either. "If I don't look right, I don't play right," he once said, by way of explanation. Yet all this poodle-parlour nonsense does not automatically make him the 15-a-side equivalent of Sebastian Flyte. Just as Brial once staggered Dwyer by thumping the formidable All Black centre Frank Bunce from one end of the Antipodes to the other during a Bledisloe Cup match, Henson has been known to flex a muscle or two.

"I know about the hair and I know about the boots," said Mike Ruddock, who succeeded Steve Hansen as national coach after last season's Six Nations' Championship and now faces a first international on home soil against the form side in world rugby. "But Gavin doesn't shirk, and he doesn't hide. Come and watch him knock lumps out of people on the training field. He has an abundance of flair, all the attacking skills in the book - every time he gets the ball, you feel a surge of excitement. Yet he can do the hard stuff, too. I promise you that."

It was Ruddock who, on the strong advice of his assistant coach Scott Johnson, selected Henson at inside centre for this match - a role the career outside-half and sometime full-back has performed only once at senior level. And it was Ruddock who, having taken the gamble, appealed for some patience and understanding from a notoriously irritable rugby public. "Let's not expect too much too soon," begged the coach. "I have absolutely no doubt that Gavin is precisely the player we all thought he was when he first came to prominence as a teenager, but he has had his difficulties for one reason or another and is still developing. There is more, much more, to come. It is vital that we give him and his game some room to grow."

A good point well made, but it may be too late for that. Three months short of his 23rd birthday, Henson is not much more than a rookie. However, his status as the future of Welsh rugby reaches deep into his past, and this latest opportunity probably represents his last best chance to establish himself as a force at Test level. Born in Bridgend and nurtured by the Swansea club when it was still a major player in the Welsh game, he inspired Wales Under-18s to the home unions' championship before playing for the Under-21s as an Under-19 and guiding them to the Six Nations' title. He then performed so brilliantly for his rightful age group during a tournament in Chile that the International Rugby Board bestowed upon him the extravagant accolade of "World Young Player of the Year".

And since then? Um, nothing much. He has been capped on seven occasions, but can scarcely be accused of setting the River Taff ablaze with his efforts. It was the same story with his old day job. Swansea frequently preferred the artful Arwel Thomas to Henson at outside-half, and his trials and tribulations at St Helen's left him wondering whether it might be better to get out of Wales altogether. He needed something to happen, something that would help him break the cycle of boom and bust, build-up and failure. That something turned out to be regional rugby.

"Looking back at Swansea now, the set-up was pretty amateur - pretty poor, actually," he said this week. "And of course, things went badly wrong off the pitch. By the time the club went into administration, I was really struggling with my game and couldn't see a way through it. I didn't know where my career was going. My thoughts turned to England and the possibility of moving to a Premiership club; I think I'd have gone anywhere, to be honest with you.

"Then, before I had a chance to do anything serious, the Welsh regions were introduced and I was offered a contract with the Neath-Swansea Ospreys. The Ospreys are entirely different in terms of professionalism. I've taken some massive steps forward over the last two seasons."

Henson is a complex and contradictory sort, full of unresolved conflicts. A determinedly flamboyant individual on the field, he is painfully shy off it and makes no secret of his reluctance to participate in public forums of the kind that now litter the week-long preparations for a big Test match. "I'm not easy with this business of talking about myself," he admitted. "I found it difficult when I first came into the game and I find it difficult now, but it's part of the whole scene these days, so there we are. I do like it when people talk me up, though. I like the feeling of being under pressure, of operating under a weight of expectation. I think that brings out the best in me.

"Certainly, we should back ourselves as an international team - yes, even against the Boks, who are obviously exceptionally strong. I believe the Welsh back division is one of the better units around, that numbers nine to 15 are a real strength in this side and that we are capable of scoring tries against even the best defences. Some people think that by talking this way, I'm adding to the pressure we're already experiencing. But that's exactly what we should be doing. We should rate ourselves, both as individual players and as a combination. We should expect to do well."

Bold words. But surely Henson accepts that a sudden move to a new position - one that places him directly opposite the most feared tackler in Springbok rugby, the supremely aggressive De Wet Barry, and leaves him at the mercy of a mighty trio of back-row bandits in Joe van Niekerk, Juan Smith and the remarkable Schalk Burger - is asking an awful lot. In one sense, Ruddock has shown an uncommon degree of faith in an uncommonly talented playmaker. In another, he has set up Henson for a fall.

"Look, this is a wonderful opportunity for me," Henson replied. "After that 'World Young Player' thing, I thought I was ready for take-off. It didn't happen. Clement Poitrenaud of France had come second to me in the judging, and I had to watch him progress as an international player while I was getting nowhere fast. That was tough. I lost 12 months of my career around that time, just trying to work out where I was heading and what was going wrong. So to have this chance now, just when things are going well at regional level and I'm catching up on things, is really important.

"As I'm not sure what my best position will turn out to be, I don't suppose anyone else knows either. But in training this week, the 12 role has felt completely natural. I don't think I'll be goal-kicking against the Boks - I've let myself down in that department over the last couple of weeks - so I'll be able to concentrate on getting it right as an inside centre. And yes, I know I'll have to get through my fair share of dirty work. This game will be won in defence, so my tackle-count will have to be in double figures." How does 93 sound, all of them painful? "God, I hope it's not that bad. I was thinking in terms of a little over 10."

There is every likelihood of Henson being spotted running a muddied hand through his heavily fortified hair at some point during today's game, quite possibly for the benefit of the television cameras. But if Ruddock is correct about him, the balance between posing and playing will tilt heavily in the right direction. The whole of Wales is praying that this turns out to be the case. When the Boks are in town, there is precious little room for posturing.

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