It is undoubtedly a measure of Iain Henderson’s improved status as a player, leader and line-out caller four years on from the tour to New Zealand that the 29-year-old has been chosen to lead the British and Lions against the Sharks in Johannesburg on Wednesday.
In that time Henderson has gone on to deputise for Rory Best as Ulster captain before assuming the role on a full-time basis this season. Although injuries and Irish commitments have restricted Henderson's appearances for Ulster this season, Andy Farrell also turned to him when Johnny Sexton, Peter O'Mahony and James Ryan were all ruled out of the Six Nations game against France last February.
With 63 caps to his name, and tour captain Conor Murray named on the bench, Henderson was a fairly obvious choice.
Asked why he had chosen Henderson to captain the Lions on Wednesday, Warren Gatland simply said: “Experience; being a previous Lions tourist; captain of Ulster and captain of Ireland as well. He just brings a calm approach to it and he’s well aware that there are other experienced players in the side and leaders in the side who are there to support him.
“There are a couple of other players who we could have looked but I just thought that Iain’s an obvious choice for us given his experience and stature in the game. I spoke to Andy Farrell during the Six Nations and he was full of praise for Iain’s leadership and what he was bringing to the Ireland side. That was a natural fit for us and a great honour for him too.”
Henderson himself said: “I’m incredibly excited and looking forward to it. The lads have been preparing really well for it. Off the back of the game at the weekend, we had a really good session this morning and we’re looking forward to another one this afternoon. We’ve got our heads together and got a good game plan in place. Excitement is probably my overwhelming feeling.”
When it was put to Henderson that history suggested captaincy could be a dubious honour, he retorted good-naturedly: “Thanks for that comment!
“I think as Gats said earlier on, there’s so many leaders in the squad. So many of these guys are leaders amongst their clubs and their countries so I feel that my jobs as a captain is to ensure that those guys are able to express themselves as best as possible, and that’s ensuring that I’m not the only one doing all the talking or all the directing.
“Most of these guys probably have a better idea of what they’re doing than I do, so I’m happy enough to let these guys do their own thing, ensure that they can bring out their strengths and ultimately the quicker we can gel together in terms of the game the better we’ll see the performance.”
Gatland remains adamant that the Lions' side for the first test in under three weeks' time is far from resolved and Henderson, pigeon-holed on the midweek side four years ago despite a string of impressive performances, is competing with Maro Itoje, Jonny Hill and Adam Beard for one of the starting secondrow berths.
This follows the loss of Alun Wyn Jones, and while Courtney Lawes or Tadhg Beirne could also be considered they appear to be earmarked for the blindside.
In any event, this tour has an altogether different feel compared to the New Zealand expedition in many ways.
“I think it’s incredibly different in a lot of different aspects on and off the field but as a whole, we’ve gelled together. The extra time we got with more numbers in Jersey has been incredible for us.
“The Test team that people talk about so much really hasn’t come into a lot of players’ thoughts, it hasn’t come into my thoughts really. At the minute, there’s obviously so much before then for us to consider in terms of players, getting stuff ready, and getting your stuff right.
“That’s a fair bit down the line and we’re concentrating on what’s in front of us.”
The Lions management have come under criticism for bringing the Exeter hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie in a day after he was seemingly knocked unconscious in his club’s Premiership final defeat by Harlequins. He lay motionless for several seconds after a tackle, but was then able to rise to his feet and walk off.
The decision to have Cowan-Dickie fly to Johannesburg the next day and play as a replacement last Saturday in the 56-14 win over the Sigma Lions drew criticism from Progressive Rugby, a lobby group of former players, as well as coaches and medics. Cowan-Dickie has been named to start against the Sharks.
“There are strict protocols that our medical team follow that World Rugby have put in place that players have to go through,” said Gatland, who has long been regarded by medics in the game as a coach who will always defer to their judgement and never applies pressure on them to have a player declared fit.
“We had a world-renowned specialist in concussion look at Luke and he cleared him as well. He’d gone through all the protocols. People who don’t really know a lot about concussion . . . every player is affected differently.
“Sometimes a player can be knocked out and recover and be perfect in a very short time. Other players might get a very slight knock and it can take them a while to recover from that. There is no similarity in terms of what different players go through with their cases.
“All I can say is that I 100 per cent follow the advice of the medical team. They go through the protocols and when a player is passed fit then he’s considered for selection.
“I can tell you there’s definitely no pressure from the rugby side. If he’s not right then he wouldn’t have been selected. I don’t know how much more I can talk about that. People who are a lot more educated than me are making these decisions.”
Meanwhile, as was the case a week out from last Friday’s win over Georgia, the Springboks’ preparations for the scheduled second test between the sides next Friday have been disrupted, with doubts about the game now going ahead after their entire squad was placed in isolation.
SA Rugby has confirmed that the Springboks suspended training on Monday following a positive Covid-19 test in the squad and that the players have been placed in preventative isolation prior to further PCR testing and a review of the testing data by the Medical Advisory Group (MAG).
Lood de Jager returned a positive outcome in scheduled testing and, because of his close contact with a number of squad members, the entire group has gone into isolation.
SA Rugby said in a statement on Monday that an update will be issued following the review by the MAG and the further testing.
The Springboks also had to suspend training on Monday of last week and were without a few senior players in the first Test against Georgia due to Covid-19 protocols.