Nation rejoices - the preen idol is back

Love is in the Cardiff air as Henson is forgiven and reunited with the Grand Slam backline
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The Independent Online

The Millennium Stadium is a noisy, feral place to experience live sport, but there is a detached, modernistic element to it too. Big screens at either end of the field flash up instant replays along with pictures both of the paying public, who tend either to dissolve into embarrassed laughter or to wave madly back at themselves, and of the players, most of whom have practised a fixed stare.

When Gavin Henson, by self-design the most photogenic member of the Welsh team, was shown teasing a stray hair back into place, the crowd let out a collective giggle. But it seemed to be an affectionate one.

And if the Welsh public have decided to be forgiving of Henson's preening traits - the leg-waxing, the celebrity girlfriend, the knocking about on golf courses with movie stars - they have made a just and correct judgement. It is around the sheer talent of such players that great teams are made. Never mind the nostalgia for the 1970s; the annus interruptus Wales have just endured has had their supporters dreaming of 2005. Yesterday we saw the Grand Slam back line emerge from a hibernation forced by injury and other misfortune, and with Henson at the heart of things there were periods that suggested those heights might be achievable again.

Henson is, in more ways than one, the face of this Welsh team. The monstrous penalty goal which famously did for England here in that champion season became almost a burden rather than an inspiration. His autobio-graphy created a dressing-room stink which faded only slowly, and a groin injury from the Lions' tour of New Zealand, followed by a seven-week ban for an elbow with the Ospreys against Leic-ester, lengthened the hiatus.

Before this return - which had not been a foregone conclusion after Henson missed the tour to Argentina and made appear-ances for his region at fly-half and full-back - he had been limited in internationals this year to a couple of substitute outings, most unhappily in Ireland as a replacement during the first half for Stephen Jones.

But when Henson is taking the ball at pace, in his best position of inside-centre, it means the Welsh are going well. So it was in a split-second of instinctive brilliance that Henson snapped a pass to Tom Shanklin in the build-up to Shane Williams's try. It demonstrated coolness under pressure, too, as Lote Tuqiri was coming at him like a train.

On other occasions Wales needed Henson's right boot to clear their lines. He was called on for one long-distance goal-kick, and after the characteristic high hitch of the non-kicking left leg he sent the ball soaring to its target from the Australian 10-metre line.

Henson admitted last week that he had lost sight of the need to work at his game; that he had become accustomed to simply expecting good things to happen. When James Hook came on yesterday, after Jones was again injured early on, it was a chance for the 24-year-old Henson to show a new maturity.

At a break in play going into the climactic last few minutes Henson spoke urgently to Hook, then trotted over to the Wales pack and barked instructions. They were probably pinned on getting into drop-goal range; another big-screen moment was in the offing. But the forwards were unable to deliver. And even Henson's Hollywood smile is not much use if the flash gun fails to go off.