Aki and Henshaw ready to reignite midfield flame for Lions

Former Connacht centres return to the scene of their 2016 Pro12 triumph in Edinburgh

Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki will start in midfield for the Lions against Japan. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki will start in midfield for the Lions against Japan. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

As a former Connacht coach himself, Warren Gatland has made it clear he is expecting Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw to make the most of their opportunity to revive the midfield partnership which was central to the province’s 2015-16 Pro12 success against Japan on Saturday (kick-off 3pm, live on Channel 4).

The pair built up a potent relationship and strong friendship in their two seasons at Connacht, culminating in their semi-final win over Glasgow and victory against Leinster in the final at Murrayfield, the last time the pair played together in the Edinburgh venue.

A highlight from that campaign was against Munster in November 2015 when Henshaw hit the line and offloaded for Aki’s acrobatic finish by the left hand corner flag to seal their first win in Thomond Park for 29 years, albeit Henshaw played fullback that night.

They were reunited for Aki’s test debut in the win over South Africa in November 2017, beginning Ireland’s Grand Slam campaign together in the victories over France and Italy before Henshaw was injured. They were together again for the series-deciding win over Australia later that summer.

The partnership became more sporadic subsequently, not least due to the form of Garry Ringrose, before Aki and Henshaw were reacquainted to telling effect in the win over England last March, their ninth victory in a dozen Test starts together.

“That combination obviously goes back to the Connacht days - we call them the two Connacht lads coming together - and I think they are great mates as well, so that obviously helps,” said Gatland.

Although pigeon-holed by some as a truck-it-up target runner, Gatland recognizes there is way more to Aki’s game than that.

“A lot of people see Bundee as being someone, and we know, who gets the ball across the gainline but he’s got a lot more than just that to offer. He’s got some real rugby skill and some great footwork and a passing and an offloading game, so we’re expecting some real quality rugby out of both of those two.

“I thought Robbie was the outstanding midfielder in the Six Nations. He’s great in the air and I’ve seen him develop and mature from four years ago. That’s been probably one of the biggest highlights for me in terms of how he’s developed into an absolutely world class midfielder and we’re expecting a lot from both of those players, and I think they’re expecting a lot from themselves as well.”

Among the other quartet of Irish players to start Saturday’s game, it will also be interesting to see how Tadhg Beirne goes, with Gatland intimating that they see him more as a blindside flanker than a lock after he showed his ability to play both in an eye-catching, ever-present Six Nations campaign.

“He’s been very, very good. We’re probably at this stage looking at him as a backrower. We know he can cover the secondrow but I spoke to him the other day about ‘what’s your point of difference?’ and he knew straight away what his point of difference is.

Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw celebrate Connacht’s 2012 Pro12 win. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw celebrate Connacht’s 2012 Pro12 win. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

“His point of difference is his ability at the breakdown and the amount of turnovers that he creates in the game is pretty special for a player, and we’re looking for players to think about what their point of difference is.

“For Tadhg that definitely is a big part of his game, the amount of turnovers that he is able to create and those sort of things can change a game, and you need players like that to be able to have an impact in the match, and he’s able to do that. Hopefully at the weekend he gets the chance to demonstrate some of those abilities that he has.”

Conor Murray, Iain Henderson and Jack Conan are the other Irish players in the all-Celtic starting team, with Tadhg Furlong on the bench, which in part reflects their need of game time and presence in the Lions’ training camp in Jersey since last Sunday week.

Gatland has vowed that every player in the 37-man squad will be afforded game time before the Test series.

“Everyone is going to get their chance and someone is going to come through that a lot of people may not expect and I think that’s the exciting part from the coaching aspect. We’re not fixed on who we think is going to be making the Test team.”

It has yet to be decided whether Saturday’s game will be officially deemed a Test match for the Lions players, with the Lions board still due to reach an agreement with the 1888 Club, which is comprised of former Lions players.

The Lions’ scratchy warm-up win over Argentina in 2005 in Cadiff was deemed to be a Test match, unlike the stop-off game in Hong Kong against the Barbarians in 2013 en route to Australia.

“We’re playing an international side so, for me, we are playing a Test match,” said Gatland. “Those sorts of decisions are out of my hands in terms of they are for the board to make but I can tell you we’re playing a quality international team that we thoroughly respect.

“They made the World Cup quarter-finals so we are preparing for a Test match, as far as we are concerned, from a playing point of view and a team perspective.”

Lions: Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales); Josh Adams (Cardiff Rugby, Wales), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster Rugby, Ireland), Bundee Aki (Connacht Rugby, Ireland), Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh Rugby, Scotland); Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints, Wales), Conor Murray (Munster Rugby, Ireland); Rory Sutherland (Edinburgh Rugby, Scotland), Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland); Iain Henderson (Ulster Rugby, Ireland), Alun Wyn Jones - Captain (Ospreys, Wales); Tadhg Beirne (Munster Rugby, Ireland), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby, Scotland), Jack Conan (Leinster Rugby, Ireland). Replacements: Jamie George (Saracens, England), Wyn Jones (Scarlets, Wales),Tadhg Furlong (Leinster Rugby, Ireland), Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, England), Taulupe Faletau (Bath Rugby, Wales), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland), Owen Farrell (Saracens, England), Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, England).

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