Henson pulls the strings for Welsh

WALES 11 ENGLAND 9 Paul Newman THE jubilant Welsh team were preparing to leave their dressing-room when Gareth Thomas, the captain, sounded a note of caution. Enjoy the post-match dinner, he said, have a drink or two, but take it easy because there is another game to prepare for next weekend.

"You must be joking," Gavin Henson piped up. "I'm a hero. They'll be expecting to see me on the town tonight." Although his tongue was firmly in cheek at the time, there can be no doubting Henson's iconic status.

From the moment the 23-year-old centre thumped Mark Cueto to the ground after just 25 seconds as England attempted to launch a counter-attack, Henson's spiky hair and silver boots became the emblems of the youthful spirit breathing new life into the Welsh dragon.

Henson had already played a part in Shane Williams' try, cleverly using a dummy run by Mefin Davies to move the ball swiftly down the Welsh line, when he made the first of two crowd-rousing tackles on Mathew Tait.

The England debutant, given his first chance to run at the Welsh defence, was brought to a shuddering halt by Henson, who drove him backwards and into the turf.

The challenge five minutes into the second half was even more spectacular. A spell of England pressure saw Josh Lewsey feed Tait 25 metres from the Welsh line, only for the 18-year-old to be lifted off the ground by the force of Henson's tackle. The Wales centre kept hold of his man and carried him forward, like a gladiator clearing a body from the arena. Poor Tait.

Fifteen minutes later he was indeed dead meat, Olly Barkley coming on as replacement and adding a kicking dimension which had been sadly lacking from England's game.

In contrast, Henson's silver boots had stretched the England back line and regularly turned defence into attack.

Shortly before the interval, with Jason Robinson breathing down his neck as he fielded the ball inside his own half, Henson kicked more than 50 metres and found touch after a single bounce just short of the try-line.

And finally the moment Henson knew would come his way. Every place kick had been within the range of Stephen Jones until Wales, trailing 9-8 with only four minutes left on the clock, were awarded a penalty 40 metres from the posts and wide on the right. "I looked at where it was and I knew I was going to struggle to make it," Jones said. "I said to Gareth (Thomas): 'This is touch and go. It's out of my range'."

The crowd were already chanting Henson's name. "I looked at Gavin and he gave me a reassuring nod," Thomas said.

After placing the ball and giving two quick glances at the posts, Henson kicked with the assurance of a man who knew he was not going to miss. "I've been kicking really well all week," he said. "I just knew straight away when I was lining it up that I was going to put it over. I think it was written for me."

He added: "That was the biggest game of my career, without doubt. I probably kept my best performance for it as well, so I'm really happy with the way it went. There was a lot of pressure on me. I'd built myself up in the press all week."

Indeed, if ever a player had set himself up for a fall it had been Henson, who announced before the game that he would be wearing silver boots "because they match the Welsh kit better than the gold ones" and that his pre-match ritual would include shaving his legs and applying the hair gel. "About six or seven players are shaving their legs before games now," he had said. "I like to look good. If I look the part, it helps me to perform."

The old guard had no doubt shaken their heads in disbelief, but the truth is that Henson is a product of his generation, a young man for whom appearance is a key factor in his performance. And if supreme self-belief is a part of his make-up, he sees no reason to hide it.

"I'm such a positive guy with loads of confidence and I suppose I come across that way as well."

Tom Shanklin, his fellow centre, agreed. "Gavin's the sort of character who likes the attention," he said. "Wherever that penalty had been from I think he would have kicked it.

"When he's in the zone like that I don't think he can miss. You ask the Ospreys boys. When he wants a kick, he takes it and he gets it."

Stephen Jones added: "Gavin's defence was superb. Great hits, a great game. Physically he's a great specimen. He's a balanced player. He glides when he runs and obviously he's got a great kicking game as well. I'm glad he's Welsh." (© Independent News Service)

SCORERS - Wales: S Williams try; S Jones pen; Henson pen. England: Hodgson 3 pens.

WALES - G Thomas; H Luscombe (K Morgan 68), T Shanklin, G Henson, S Williams; S Jones, D Peel (G Cooper 63); G Jenkins, M Davies, A Jones (J Yapp 78), B Cockbain (J Thomas 78), R Sidoli, D Jones (R Jones 66), M Owen, M Williams.

ENGLAND - J Robinson; M Cueto, M Tait (O Barkley 62), J Noon, J Lewsey; C Hodgson, M Dawson (H Ellis 66); G Rowntree (P Vickory 59), S Thompson, J White (Rowntree 77), D Grewcock (S Borthwick 71), B Kay, C Jones, J Worsley (J Forrester 42-45), A Hazell.

REF - S Walsh (New Zealand).