Iain Henderson to lead Lions out but earning place on test side is priority

Big opportunity for secondrow after what-might-have-been tour four years ago

Iain Henderson will captain the British and Irish Lions for the first time when he leads out the tourists against the Sharks on Wednesday evening at Emirates Airline Park. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Iain Henderson will captain the British and Irish Lions for the first time when he leads out the tourists against the Sharks on Wednesday evening at Emirates Airline Park. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

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The British and Irish Lions’ encounter against the Sharks on Wednesday is a very big game in the career of Iain Henderson, and not just because he has been handed the honour of captaining the tourists. Opportunities to earn a place in the test side will not be plentiful and the 29-year-old Ulstermen is no exception.

Four years ago, Henderson was one of those to draw the short straw for the jetlagged, no-win tour opener against the NZ Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei. Only four of that team made the first test XV - Anthony Watson, Ben Te’o, Alun Wyn Jones and Taulupe Faletau, albeit Kyle Sinckler, Sam Warburton (after recovering from injury) and Johnny Sexton made the bench.

But if that game set Sexton’s test ambitions back - and that did the Lions no favours either - the same was true of Henderson, one of eight players in that starting team who didn’t play a minute in the test series.

Henderson literally missed the kick-off and was replaced after 50 minutes of an undistinguished night. He was only given the last four minutes of the ensuing defeat by the Blues and didn’t make the squad for the line-in-the-sand win over the Crusaders.

Although Henderson then put in a strong 80 minute performance against the Highlanders, the die was cast. He played the last 20 against the Maori All Blacks before again playing the full 80 in the 34-6 win over the Chiefs, the highlight being a fabulous try assist for Jack Nowell.

Henderson’s best performance of all was in the final midweek game against the Hurricanes when making 13 carries for a remarkable 48 metres in his 70 minutes on the pitch. Significantly though, Courtney Lawes was withdrawn for the last half-hour and it was the English lock who made the bench for the second test.

Henderson’s good work was also undone by a yellow card for a dangerous tackle, which rather summed up his what-might-have-been tour. But the 29-year-old’s appointment as captain reflects his greater experience, standing and leadership four years on.

Of course, opportunity knocks for all as Gatland adheres to his promise to give every player in the 38-man squad one start over the first three games.

Promise

Tom Curry and Josh Navidi will make their Lions debuts, and Sam Simmonds his first start in a different-looking, mobile and dynamic backrow.

Elliot Daly makes his first tour start, providing a left-footed option at outside centre, as do Watson, Gareth Davies, the frontrow of Mako Vunipola, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Zander Fagerson, and Adam Beard in the secondrow.

With Bundee Aki starting, Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne and Jack Conan are joined on the bench by Conor Murray, while presumably Stuart Hogg is covering outhalf.

As events transpired four years ago, all but two of the starting XV which laid down that marker on the second Saturday against the Crusaders ended up starting the first test a fortnight later. However Gatland strongly refuted the notion that next Saturday’s game against the Bulls in Pretoria will provide a similar template for the first test.

“That’s a misapprehension. I didn’t even know that stat (13 starters in the Crusaders match) so that was by mistake that we had put 13 of the players out. It wasn’t intentional, it just happened to be that way.

“I want this group of men to feel that everyone has an opportunity, particularly right up until the Test matches. We won’t be showing our hand in terms of what we think the Test side will be and the message four years ago to the players who played on the Tuesday night before the first Test was that we hadn’t selected the first Test team and there was still positions and spots up for grabs.

“And I think a couple of players played well that night and were selected in that first Test team.

“I think as players they want to hear that message. They want to hear that we haven’t made up our mind and that everyone has an opportunity. I think that’s really important for the whole squad.”

Sharks head coach Sean Everitt has named a settled side, with Phepsi Buthelezi back to lead them at ‘8’ after he missed their last Currie Cup outing, while Khutha Mchunu replaces former Ulster tighthead Wiehahn Herbst, who is on the bench.

Cell C Sharks v British & Irish Lions

Kick-off: 6pm, Wednesday. Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will begin at 5.30pm. On TV: Live on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Rugby.

Cell C Sharks: Manie Libbok; Werner Kok, Jeremy Ward, Marius Louw, Thaakir Abrahams; Curwin Bosch, Jaden Hendrikse; Khwezi Mona, Fez Mbatha, Khutha Mchunu; Ruben van Heerden, Hyron Andrews; James Venter, Thembelani Bholi, Phepsi Buthelezi (captain).

Replacements: Kerron van Vuuren, Ntuthuko Mchunu, Wiehahn Herbst, JJ van der Mescht, Reniel Hugo, Dylan Richardson, Grant Williams, Anthony Volmink.

British & Irish Lions: Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales); Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, England), Elliot Daly (Saracens, England), Bundee Aki (Connacht Rugby, Ireland), Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors, Scotland); Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints, Wales), Gareth Davies (Scarlets, Wales); Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland); Iain Henderson - Captain (Ulster Rugby, Ireland), Adam Beard (Ospreys, Wales); Josh Navidi (Cardiff Rugby, Wales), Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, England), Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs, England).

Replacements: Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales), Rory Sutherland (Worcester Warriors, Scotland), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster Rugby, Ireland), Tadhg Beirne (Munster Rugby, Ireland), Jack Conan (Leinster Rugby, Ireland), Conor Murray (Munster Rugby, Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Exeter Chiefs, Scotland), Chris Harris (Gloucester Rugby, Scotland).

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