The tale of two twelves

Gavin Henson has always been the centre of attention but in this Six Nations he has shone only on the pitch. Now, in stark contrast to his opposite number in England's ranks, he is preparing for Grand Slam glory. James Corrigan reports
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The Independent Online

Over the three years in which his fame has reached a wider audience than perhaps any other rugby player – barring He Of The Drop-Goal, naturally – Gavin Henson has failed dismally to keep anything and everything out of the newspapers. So it is rather odd to discover him seething at a revelation that, in fact, does his reputation no harm.

No, the latest "Henson World Exclusive!" has nothing to do with Charlotte Church or the so-called "celebrity lifestyle" that made the pair such fixtures in the gossip columns until Ruby, their first baby, arrived six months ago. It does not even have anything to do with which fake tan he favours or which Ladyshave he currently employs. It is all to do with a statistic Henson has been trying to keep quiet. A flattering one at that.

If Wales prevail against France on Saturday, Henson's record in the Six Nations will read thus: started 10 games, won 10 games; only started games in two Championships, won the Grand Slam both times. It will be a record like no other before and, it must be imagined, after.

When this win-win ratio was put to Henson in the countdown to last Saturday's Triple Crown triumph, the dismay on his face was obvious. "Yes, I was aware of that, very aware," he snapped. "I keep a close eye on my statistics." But then he clamped those usually loose lips and refused to venture anything more on the subject. Why? The answer became clear yesterday at the Wales base camp in the Vale of Glamorgan.

"I thought nobody else had realised until one of your lot asked me about it last week," he said. "I didn't really want anyone to know, to be honest with you, not until the end of the campaign anyway. But everyone seems to have picked up on it. I don't know why it's happened, why Wales have won every Six Nations game I've started. But I'm certainly going to try to make it 10 out of 10 this weekend."

Yes, the man his country are hailing as the "Perfect 12" is gunning for the "Perfect 10" when France come to Cardiff. So much for all that guff about the Henson hype having no substance.

That last point must be one of the reasons for the current skip in his sidestep. Ever since he announced himself at large with that last-gasp penalty against England in 2005 (which was, intriguingly, his first Six Nations start) some horrible things have been said and written about Henson, the player who they pilloried as having all of the sizzle, but very little of the sausage. Of course, the boy from Bridgend (10 miles east of nowhere) brought some of the criticism on himself, not least by publishing a controversial biography that lambasted team-mates and rivals alike, as well as possessing a perceived lack of application that led to his expulsion from the Wales squad for last year's World Cup. Yet, through it all, at least one coach kept faith in Henson and his vast array of qualities. The problem was that until three months ago, Warren Gatland had nothing whatsoever to do with Welsh rugby.

But now his biggest fan is at the helm and all of a sudden Henson is buoyant again. In his team announcement on Tuesday, Gatland explained exactly why he believes Henson's talents have been sidelined for two years. "I think the media have been 99 per cent of the problem as they built Gavin up, creating stories about him and his partner," he barked. "It must have been really difficult at times balancing that with trying to be a professional rugby player. I haven't taken the same approach as you guys, by treating him any differently and making him feel special. Treat him as a normal person and a normal rugby player, tell him what's expected, give him some coaching and give him some direction. That's been the key to it. And he's responded fantastically."

Indeed, some in the Welsh set-up suggest that Henson has rivalled Shane Williams and Lee Byrne as their best performer and therefore, by extension, the Championship's best performer. Certainly, at Croke Park his contribution was on the hefty size of immense. His passing was, as always, exemplary, as was his choice-making of when to shift it wide or when to straighten it up. But Henson's career seems destined to be defined by specific moments and the Irish would doubtless agree with having two more stuck in his scrapbook after last Saturday's match. A 70-yard touch-finder relieved the pressure just when Wales needed it most and you could almost hear the air rush out of Irish lungs everywhere when Henson put in a hit on Shane Horgan that brought tears even to the Dragonhood's eyes. Henson laughed when he was asked to detail these incidents; his delight at making such contributions to the cause all too clear.

"With the kick I've just got to keep Byrnie's feet on the ground, as he thinks he's got a bigger boot than me," he joked. "But in all seriousness, we were a man down and Stephen or [James] Hookie, or whoever was playing 10 at the time, was in a ruck. I just felt we had to get down there. And with Horgan, I just sort of read the play. I've seen him do that quite often in later phases. He tends to come around the line a bit and I thought that we might have been outnumbered. So I just thought, 'hit or miss'. Luckily, I got it right and didn't miss. Otherwise I might have looked a bit of an idiot."

Instead he looked a bit of a match-winner and his team-mates talked afterwards of the vital lift Henson's heroics provided. That would have been choir music to the ears of Henson and was further confirmation to those who realise he is nothing like his public image. In one simple statement he turned on their head notions that he is either an attention seeker or believes himself bigger than any team. "You know I don't particularly enjoy scoring tries as much as the other boys do," he said. "I'd rather put them in. I get more satisfaction from finding the space for others. I joke with the boys sometimes about it. I just like seeing them being happy when they score tries. Hopefully, they want me to be playing then, see. It's nice if players think to themselves they want me in the team."

It is a commendable sentiment, although it would matter not a jot to Gatland whether they wanted him or not – under the Kiwi's jurisdiction he is there to stay. The first player he mentioned when accepting the Welsh Rugby Union's desperate overtures was Henson, whom he described as having the potential to be the best inside-centre in world rugby. "That's a nice hurdle to get over, a coach coming in and speaking highly of you," said Henson, who, it is fair to say, has not been greatest buddies with a few recent Wales coaches. "You know you've got a good chance of being involved then. I suppose it's a case of not wanting to let him down now. He's got that much faith in you don't want to prove him wrong."

And what of Gatland's claim that Henson can be the finest on the oval-ball planet? "I don't know, I think when you're playing at international level you should want be the best in the world at your position," said Henson with a distinct air of embarrassment. "There's a long way to go yet, but the way we're improving and if I can stay a part of this, well, hopefully I can hit those heights. But there's a lot of good 12s around and for me to prove I can be the best in the world I need to go to a World Cup and do it on the world stage. And I haven't done that yet. So that's how far off I am. Right now I just feel I should have had a lot more caps. You know, I'm not coming to the end of my career – although I'm 26 now and not the youngest here any more – so I just want to play for my country as many times as I can. Although right now I'm just concentrating on France."

But like most in an increasingly nervous nation, Henson does not know what to expect from Marc Lièvremont's men come frenzy time at the Millennium. Do they have the ammunition to cause enough damage to deny Wales the Championship by winning by 20 points or more? Indeed, do they have the inclination? "We know how unpredictable France can be – sometimes they're world-class, sometimes they don't turn up," Henson said. "So who knows what's going to happen this weekend? You can assume it'll be a high ball-in-play time and that the boys' lungs are going to be struggling. It's just going to be all out, innit? That should be good for the fans and good for us. It's what we've been working towards; trying to keep the ball on the park as much as possible. We are a fit team, much fitter than any other team. We've proved that in this tournament. But it'll be a test against France. A real test."

Henson has passed every test the Six Nations has thrown his way so far. Fancy Mr Charlotte Church being renamed Mr 100 Per Cent? Gatland's revolution truly would have no bounds then.

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