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Last Updated: Friday, 28 January, 2005, 13:36 GMT
Shooting Stars: Gavin Henson (Wales)
Mathew Tait Dimitri Yachvili Marcus Horan Sergio Parisse Chris Cusiter Gavin Henson Gavin Henson

By Sean Davies

As the Six Nations media hype hits overdrive, the man drawing the paparazzi for Wales is not one of the usual suspects.

Gavin Henson, the player charged with sparking the Wales back line from inside centre, is a tournament virgin who turns 23 the week before the big kick off.

"It's quite strange really, I was named as one of the senior players and I just thought, oh my God!" said Henson.

"Everyone's been talking about me, even saying I'll be on the Lions tour, but I haven't even played in the Six Nations yet."

Gavin could prove to be the key man for Wales and the Lions
Wales legend Jonathan Davies
Despite these humble words, it would be a mistake to think the maverick youngster lacks the pedigree for the challenge ahead - or that he is daunted by the prospect.

The 2001 International Rugby Board young player of the year has always been destined for the top, and after a sparkling junior career made his first start in the coveted Wales No 10 jersey at the tender age of 19.

His development was temporarily stunted by the arrival of Iestyn Harris from rugby league, and by his own versatility.

Coaches at Wales and Swansea tried him at fly-half, centre, wing and full-back, moves that left the Bridgend man unable to impose himself in any position.

But Wales coach Mike Ruddock saw him as Harris' long-term replacement at inside centre from the moment he took the job last spring, and Henson has been an automatic choice ever since.

GAVIN HENSON
Gavin Henson
Born: 1 February 1982
Bridgend, Wales
Position: Fly-half/centre
Caps: 11
Points: 115 (three tries)
Six Nations appearances: 0
Kicked a Welsh record 14 conversions from 14 attempts against Japan in the autumn
"I don't think I've matured in the last 12 months, it's just that the coaches have had the belief in me to select me week-in, week-out, I've never had that before," said Henson.

Former Wales fly-half Jonathan Davies is not so sure that is the full explanation, though.

"Gavin is a great player, but he was thrust into the limelight a bit too soon and the expectation proved too great," said Davies.

"His attitude is better now, with his hairstyle and flashy boots you can see he enjoys the attention.

"These days he can cope with it and that's the big difference. He could prove to be the key man for Wales and the Lions."

Now firmly established as the star of the Ospreys regional team's back-line, Henson has been used at fly-half and full-back this season, but is happy that he has a regular slot in the Wales side.

"It's nice to settle into the Welsh team at 12, I've played there with [Wales centre] Sonny Parker at the Ospreys and we're getting a real partnership together.

"I can sense that I'm a marked man on the field, but I don't mind at all because it creates space for others, that's my role in the team."

Henson says his confidence is shared by the squad, but they must turn competitive displays into wins over the big guns of world rugby.

"England, France and Ireland are all up there, but New Zealand stuffed France after we ran them close. We have to look at that and believe in ourselves," said Henson.

"I don't see why we can't do something special like winning the tournament. If we take a major scalp you'll really see us on a run, we'll have the belief to become a winning team."

Of course, Wales will have the chance to skin that scalp in their first game, when they welcome world champions England to Cardiff on 5 February.

I don't get nervous before I play rugby
Gavin Henson
"The whole nation will be watching, but we have to look back at when the likes of Scott Gibbs and Ieuan Evans got winning tries against them, they're not unbeatable," Henson said.

"England have a massive pack and we need to stay away from the rucks and mauls.

"They also have game-breakers like Charlie Hodgson and Jason Robinson, but we have to concentrate on our play.

"Our strength is an expansive game with the ball in hand and we're fortunate that we have the forwards to back that up.

"Physically and fitness-wise we're matching the top teams now and we're ready to put together a great performance."

Despite the weight of expectation on the England game, when he steps onto the Millennium Stadium pitch Henson will feel that the worst is over.

"You have to treat it like any other match," he said. "I don't get nervous before I play rugby, only before the media interviews!"




SEE ALSO
Henson eyes Six Nations glory
21 Nov 04 |  Six Nations
Henson appeals for extended run
07 Nov 04 |  Six Nations
Henson reveals Hansen rift
13 Sep 04 |  Welsh
Henson fills Harris hole
21 May 04 |  Six Nations
Henson wins top award
12 Nov 01 |  Wales


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