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Henson races against time for England tie

Back from wilderness, Welshman has four fixtures to sharpen skills if he is to face England in February.

Gavin Henson, of Saracens, made a short but impressive comeback at Wembley Stadium.
Gavin Henson, of Saracens, made a short but impressive comeback at Wembley Stadium.

Back from wilderness, Welshman has four fixtures to sharpen skills if he is to face England in February, says Alex Lowe

On the day Warren Gatland took charge of Wales, he vowed to get the best out of Gavin Henson, who had spent the previous two years in international wilderness.

"Rugby is a game about expressing yourself under pressure and Gavin has the ability to be able to do something special," Gatlin said at the time. "You need those players in your team. If we can harness that talent it has got to be good for Welsh rugby."

Gatland was speaking on December, 1 2007 and he proved true to his word. Henson returned to the international scene and he was a key figure in the 2008 Grand Slam triumph by Wales.

It will be fascinating to discover over the coming weeks whether Gatland still retains that same faith now that Henson has once again stepped out of the wilderness - more literally this time, as he dealt with a painful episode in his personal life by turning his attentions to a reality television career which, alongside a more high-profile stint on Strictly Come Dancing, saw him reach the final of 71 Degrees North, ITV's celebrity race to the Arctic Circle.

After 21 months out of the game, Henson, 28, is back. He appeared off the bench for the new club Saracens in their 13-6 victory on Sunday against London Wasps in the Aviva Premiership.

Afterwards, Henson reinforced his desire to win his 32nd Wales cap against England at the Millennium Stadium on February 4.

It was that very fixture which gave Henson's international career lift-off for the first time in 2005.

Will it do so again? Can the Strictly semi-finalist waltz straight back into the Wales squad?

It is too early to say he should. Henson played just 29 minutes at Wembley in the unfamiliar position of outside centre. He carried the ball strongly but his defence was rusty and he did not kick.

At his best, Henson is ferocious in contact while also boasting an under-rated running game, sublime distribution skills and a sledge-hammer right boot. He lamented slipping off a couple of tackles on Sunday but, at his peak, he is thunderous in defence. Just ask Mathew Tait, the England back, who has never been quite the same player since being on the receiving end of crunching hit from Henson at the Millennium Stadium in 2006.

Henson has a maximum of four fixtures to sharpen his skills back to Test standard and prove himself to Gatland, two in the Aviva Premiership and two in the Heineken Cup, if Saracens decide to register him. The European games, away at Leinster, which could see him go head-to-head with Brian O'Driscoll, and at home to Clermont Auvergne, will provide Gatland with a reliable barometer of Henson's match-sharpness.

The Wales squad for the Six Nations will be announced in mid-January. Henson knows time is short and he wants the chance to start for Saracens at inside centre. Standing in his way, however, is Brad Barritt, the South African-born centre who is on England's radar. He was Saracens' Player of the Year last season and the club will be loath to move him.

Even if Henson starts all four games for Saracens, would that be enough for him to get back up to speed after nearly two years out of the game? That is what Gatland will be watching closely. "We know his quality as a player but he has been out of the game," Gatland said. "If his club form's not good enough, he won't be selected."

On the other hand, Wales have won just two of their past 13 fixtures and need inspiration. Henson, as Gatland outlined in 2008, has the ability to provide it.

For the first time in five years, Henson is injury-free. The break from rugby allowed troublesome ankle and Achilles injuries to clear up.

Henson remains convinced his best rugby is still to come and that playing against England is a realistic target. "I am in a better place, my body feels great, it gives me a better edge than before," he said.

Wales could potentially unleash a world-class midfield of Henson and Jamie Roberts, who is making his way back from injury. Understandably, the Wales management are excited to see Henson back in action.

Shaun Edwards, the Wasps head coach and Wales defence coach, said: "He looked good."

* Press Association