Henshaw's grip on the Lions' 13 jersey suddenly doesn't feel so tight
When the British and Irish Lions boarded their flight for South Africa fresh from their victory over Japan, one position where there was little to no doubt over was outside centre.
Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw was a comfortable favourite to start the first Test against the Springboks in the 13 jersey due to his form, balance in attack and defence and his experience on the 2017 Lions tour of New Zealand where, had it not been for injury, he could have also featured in the Test side.
Henshaw excelled in green during the Six Nations earlier this year, not only facilitating the attack with his physical carrying, measured distribution and underrated kicking game, but also showing his efficiency and effectiveness in defence, forcing a number of turnovers and making one-on-one dominant tackles in space. He had set the bar in the northern hemisphere at the position.
With long-time Warren Gatland favourite Jonathan Davies not in the tour squad and Manu Tuilagi having also missed out due to his recent injury, it seemed as though there was very little standing between Henshaw and that starter’s jersey for the first Test in Cape Town later this month.
Rugby is a fickle beast, though, and even the best laid plans can come to nought at times.
Named to start against Japan in the tour opener, Henshaw did well in a Lions team clearly still in the early stages of finding their chemistry, but a hamstring injury has now ruled him out of the midweek game against the Cell C Sharks in Johannesburg. If that was something which would leave the door ajar for Chris Harris and Elliot Daly, then the duo’s performances against the Sigma Lions on Saturday blew it considerably wider open.
Harris’ carry and kick to send Louis Rees-Zammit away for the opening try of the game was representative of the complete player that Harris has become in the last couple of seasons, where he has added refinement in attack to his foundations of strong defence.
His out-to-in lines caused the Lions defence problems and he was also used as an option directly off the lineout. He might not pack the same punch as a Tuilagi or a Bundee Aki running that play, but he was effective nonetheless.
Unsurprisingly, however, it was in defence where he earned the majority of his plaudits. His decision-making, line speed and strength in the tackle were all excellent and it was in large part due to those factors that both Burger Odendaal and Manuel Rass were kept as quiet as they were.
As like-for-like replacements for Henshaw go, Gatland could do far worse than Harris, who showed positive signs of ticking all the boxes that the New Zealander will need from his outside centre during the Tests.
If Gatland is looking for slightly more of a contrast in the position, however, his attention may well have been grabbed by Daly’s cameo off the bench.
The former Wasps man was a favourite of Gatland’s during the last tour, albeit playing on the wing in New Zealand. Since then, he has largely been used as a full-back by England and Eddie Jones, where his form has tended to fluctuate. On Saturday, though, the versatile back shone in the midfield, highlighting to everyone watching just why he was so highly-touted as England’s future outside centre a number of years ago.
Daly’s electric footwork provided something different to what had been offered in the game up until that point by Harris and Owen Farrell, and it was his slaloming inside steps that created Gareth Davies’ try. Not long after and he was again the creator as his long pass off his left found Josh Adams for the Welshman’s fourth try of the night.
His left-footed kicking option was also on display, whilst his line speed saw him disrupt a number of Lions attacks as the game got looser and the South African side began to throw caution to the wind.
Whether or not it was enough to push himself into contention for the 13 jersey remains to be seen, whilst his enviable versatility as a genuine option to cover 13, wing and full-back, makes him a very appealing candidate for the 23 spot, especially if Gatland picks Farrell at 12 and then opts for a 6-2 split on the bench.
Either way, with Henshaw now set to miss the Sharks game and prove his fitness ahead of the games with the Vodacom Bulls and South Africa A, the competition for the outside centre berth is wide open for Gatland, something which not too many would have predicted before departure for South Africa.
It is also worth noting that the Sigma Lions also arguably represent the weakest challenge of the four South African provincial sides and that should be taken into account when assessing the performances of Harris and Daly in competition to Henshaw.
Away from the impressive performances of Harris and Daly, a number of others put their hands up for further involvements as the tour goes on:
- Hamish Watson was a standout at openside, displaying all the industry that we have come to expect from the Scotsman.
- Watson was helped out by the physicality on both sides of the ball that Maro Itoje, Jonny Hill and Kyle Sinckler in particular brought in the pack.
- Josh Adams was in a clinical mood grabbing his four tries and looks to be in the sort of form to take a Test jersey.
- The set-piece was strong at the scrum and the lineout, with a few issues in the kicking game to be ironed out.
- The axis of Finn Russell and Owen Farrell had its moments, though it will need longer together if it is to be genuinely considered to take on the Springboks.
- One carry around the fringes from Sam Simmonds brought success, but lining him up in a 3-man pod close to the ruck on slow ball is not how they’re going to get the best out him.
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