As a former world junior player of the year, Gavin Henson was born to strut his stuff on the grandest stage of all, the World Cup. He hasn't appeared in one. In 2003, he wasn't taken to Australia by Steve Hansen, who had succeeded Graham Henry, and last year he left Wales' HQ with his foot on the accelerator of his Merc after being informed by the coach Gareth Jenkins that he wasn't quite up to it.
Neither were Wales, who were beaten by Fiji and failed to make the quarter-finals, and neither was Jenkins, at least according to the Welsh Rugby Union, who promptly fired him. Henson, though, appears to be fully rehabilitated, off and running, as indeed are his team-mates, who have beaten England and Scotland in the Six Nations' Championship and, under Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards, are going for a repeat of the Grand Slam glory of 2005.
You try to be diplomatic about these things but Henson cannot disguise the fact that a fresh coaching team have produced a new Henson. "It's going all right," he said at the Millennium Stadium. "Winning helps. I'm just enjoying it. Working with the new people has been very refreshing and I think everyone in the squad has been really enjoying it. There's a lot of quality players in the team so it's easier to slip in, especially at No 12."
The major reason for this sea change is that Henson sees eye to eye with Gatland and he could not say the same of the people who preceded the New Zealander. "You know, I'm working well with the new coaches. I think they like me, which helps. Yeah, it does make a difference. I think they believe in me and it's up to me to prove them right and give them the performances they expect. That's all I'm concentrating on. I feel I'm getting stronger, fitter and better in each game."
This is good news for Wales, Gatland and the Ospreys, not to mention Charlotte Church, his partner who recently gave birth to a daughter. "Perhaps I was a little tense in the last few years, probably because my game wasn't right. I felt down a bit. I was depressed, I suppose, with my rugby. Now I'm a family man and it's made a massive change. I think I understand what life's about now. It's also good working with people I haven't worked with before. I'm learning something new every day and that's all you want as a rugby player."
He could become the genuine article. Wales did exceptionally well in the 2003 World Cup and might have done better had the perma-tanned one been in Australia. But he wasn't. "They were difficult times for me, under previous coaches... I don't think they liked me, to be honest. It's hard. Warren's a totally different guy. I just like the way he approaches it, the way he is. He's a comfortable guy to be around.
"I really want to play in the World Cup so I'll have to hang around for the next one. Last year Gareth Jenkins said that some of my fitness wasn't up to the rest of the squad and they laid really heavily into that. Other players were given time to be ready. I don't know why they decided to cut me. I said to them, if anyone gets injured, call me because by the time the cup comes around I'll be way up to speed and I'll do a good job."
Earlier this season, Henson, playing for the Ospreys, scored all 19 points in an EDF Energy Cup victory over Harlequins at The Stoop and instead of returning down the M4 with the rest of the squad he took a train to Cardiff with three friends, a journey that produced newspaper headlines such as: "Gavin's drunken train shame." He took time out with a broken left hand but avoided a court appearance. "There's not a booze culture in Welsh rugby," he said. "We have the odd night out and that's what team spirit is about. Look at the matches in the Six Nations. We're finishing stronger than other teams. We're playing a type of way that others can't live with because of our fitness. Maybe booze is the answer." He emphasised that this was a joke – with a capital J.
"Warren trusts us. We are adults, not little boys. If you step out of line you'll be dealt with. I feel there's something special going on and I sensed it in the first week. It reminds me of 2005. Maybe that win in England was the one that put us on our way, just like 2005." Three years ago, Wales beat England in Cardiff, Henson kicking a late, long matchwinning penalty. And then he met Miss Church in the capital.
"Yeah, it did change my life, on and off the pitch. I don't know what else to say really. Now I come home and see my little girl and it's unbelievable. When Charlotte was pregnant I heard a lot of bad things about babies, that you're going to be knackered and up all night, that sort of stuff. It's the best thing that's ever happened to me."
For all his trials and tribulations Henson has never lost when he has started a Six Nations match, winning all seven. "I'm well aware of that. I look at stats a lot and I've noticed quite a few wins in the columns next to my caps, but I think this team could be the best yet. Everyone's on the edge, afraid of making a mistake. The concentration levels are at a maximum. With other coaches you trained for over an hour and there was a lot of chat but you didn't reach the right intensity. This is very different."Reuse content