Monday 18 December 2017

Henshaw giving Gatland options

British and Irish Lions’ Robbie Henshaw (l) is tackled by Otago Highlanders’ Malakai Fekitoa during their match at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
British and Irish Lions’ Robbie Henshaw (l) is tackled by Otago Highlanders’ Malakai Fekitoa during their match at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

Robbie Henshaw played his part in planting another seed of doubt in Warren Gatland's mind over the possibility of pairing Owen Farrell and Jonathan Sexton together for the first test.

The inside centre stepped up to the challenges laid down by the form of Ben Te'o and the seductive cameo from Sexton inside Farrell against The Crusaders in Christchurch.

Henshaw is a big game operator, who excels at the international level as well as having previous form when it comes to taking down the All Blacks.

Okay, The Lions showed improvement in attack to pick off The Highlanders for three tries at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

It was achieved under Dunedin conditions a lot more conducive to continuity than they had encountered in their three previous matches.

Contrary to popular opinion, it may just be the prevention of tries rather than the accumulation of them that will give the tourists their best chance at a shock series win.

This is where Henshaw comes into his own as a Test animal that sniffs out danger, like he did to thwart Malakai Fekitoa, and thrives in the trenches of a battle.

Once again, the almost flawless reputation of Farrell took a blow many critics simply refuse to recognise.

For the second match, the goal-kicker missed a straight forward kick at the posts.

The first against Crusaders did not cost The Lions the game; the second did.

This is why Gatland is more than likely to go with Leigh Halfpenny as his full-back and sharp-shooter against the Maori All Blacks at Rotorua on Saturday.

This will allow Farrell to sharpen his playmaking skills and reduce the heat on some of his passes.

With the game still on the line, in the last play, Farrell fired an unsympathetic short ball to Jonathan Joseph coming at speed.

The ball cannoned off the chest of the centre and with it went The Lions chances at a third win from four.

It was undoubtedly the best Iain Henderson has played for some time.

The Ulsterman called the perfect lineout and was a pest at the breakdown where one super-human counter-ruck saved The Lions close to their line.

Strangely, the key to his confidence comes in his footwork before contact and this was reflected in beating three defenders, third in line to Rhys Webb (5) and Jonathan Joseph (4).

Hooker Rory Best was right on the money with his darts, the one drawback to his game, all his throws finding the hands of friends.

There was also one crucial turnover in the shadow of his posts and a shift at the scrum where Ken Owens, his rival for a spot on the bench, was shown up.

The influence of CJ Stander should not be underestimated.

The back rower is often pigeon-holed as just a carrier when it is simply one of his many strengths.

For instance, despite being double-teamed in the tackle, his relentless work rate yielded a personal dividend of the most carries (22), the most tackles (13) and the most turnovers won (3).

This makes Stander a strong candidate to man a place in the 23 for the first test in behind Toby Faletau.

"We've always spoken about it, the challenge about coming to New Zealand is this is the best rugby nation in the world.

"Every week we're going to be up against it," maintained Gatland.

"The thing about coming here is that it comes hard in every single match, that's the ideal preparation.

"That's how we're going to learn from those experiences."

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