Robbie Henshaw’s ‘all-round’ qualities keep him in contention for Lions’ first Test

Backs coach Gregor Townsend praises Ireland centre ahead of Stormers clash

Robbie Henshaw during Friday’s captain’s run ahead of the tour game against the Stormers. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Robbie Henshaw during Friday’s captain’s run ahead of the tour game against the Stormers. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Robbie Henshaw looked a nailed-on certainty for a place in the British & Lions team for the first Test before the tour started, but less so after a hamstring twinge sidelined him after the Japan game. Encouragingly for Henshaw though, backs coach Gregor Townsend has emulated Warren Gatland in talking up the Leinster and Irish centre in advance of his return against the Stormers on Saturday in Cape Town Stadium (kick-off 5pm, live on Sky Sports).

“He can have a huge role in all aspects, because he’s an all-round player,” said Townsend. “He’s a good attacker, both as a ball carrier and a passer. Very good support runner too. Then he’s got the kick chase ability which he showed really well against Scotland this year, and in other games.”

Townsend also admitted that the two most meaningful trials for first Test selection have been the games against Japan and South Africa A last Wednesday, and that Henshaw made a good impression in the former.

“Defensively he’s outstanding and I think he showed in that Japan game as well, how Steve [Tandy] is wanting the team to defend, he adapted really quickly to that. So we are delighted he’s back. He got through training fine today and he gets a chance now to show that he’s available to play the Test series.”

While this last warm-up game before the Test series may not be as exacting as playing South Africa A or Japan, Townsend said it can still be very influential simply by dint of being the freshest memory in the minds of the coaches.

“How well players did through the tour, in bigger games, let’s say the Japan game, the game the other night, they are factors. The catalogue of what you’ve done on tour and how you’ve impressed at training as well as your consistency throughout the games will be a factor.

“But also what you have done the day before we sit down for selection is going to influence us, absolutely. Selection is about giving players opportunities. Ultimately it’s them who have to take them. If players grab them tomorrow night, and put in a performance that we believe can help us win that first Test, then they’ll be in a strong position.”

Warren Gatland having maintained that about “60 to 70 per cent” of the matchday 23 has still to be resolved, the selection process will begin on Sunday night

“That’s the way we’ve done it for the other games. We know this is going to be our most important selection, and we don’t have a midweek game to worry about. So getting the team out there at the beginning of the week, once we know where everyone is medically. I can see Sunday night being the time when we do that.”

The Lions were, he said, “still hopeful” that Finn Russell would be fit for the second Test, and that Dan Biggar and Owen Farrell should be able to have a full week’s training before the first Test.

Townsend said it was hard to assess whether the defeat by South Africa A has made winning the Test series tougher or not, but echoed Gatland in stressing the experience was invaluable.

“Our players have learnt what it’s like to come up against the Springboks. Not many people have that opportunity, and when you do it’s a one-off game. It’s a World Cup semi-final for the Welsh guys or a final for the English guys.

“Now they’ve had that experience of what they’re about, the way they’re going to play – they’re not going to change, we know that. They will be better for the hit-out. We felt that seeing where they are strong, maybe where there’s opportunities, that’s hugely valuable for the group that played, but also those that were in the stadium watching.

“We know the Test series is going to be another level up, but we will also improve going into the Tests. We have another game, another few training sessions, and the Test series should bring out the best in our players.”

Townsend, like his his Scottish captain Stuart Hogg, was one of those who had to remain in isolation in Johannesburg before rejoining the squad on Wednesday.

“It’s been a frustrating week in my hotel room. It was great being back with the squad on Wednesday. In terms of contingencies, what we’ve found over the last 12 months is that technology can play a big part in connecting with people – be that being in a meeting via Zoom or presenting to the players their videoclips and having meetings with them over the phone.

“Actually, the week we had with those two games, and the late changes with people in isolation, there wasn’t so much coaching time I missed, just the connection with the players and being in the room with them.”

While his period in isolation also had the silver lining of allowing him to review South African games again, he admitted: “I wouldn’t want to repeat it. You really miss the conversations you would have after a meeting or being on a training field, just to get a feel of where people are.

“You do feel you are not there, even though you are on a phone call or you are watching the game remotely and messaging the other coaches during the game. Nothing beats being there.”

STORMERS: Sergeal Petersen; Seabelo Senatla, Rikus Pretorius, Dan du Plessis, Edwill van der Merwe; Tim Swiel, Godlen Masimla; Leon Lyons, JJ Kotze, Neethling Fouche; Ernst van Rhyn (capt), JD Schickerling; Nama Xaba, Johan du Toit, Evan Roos.

Replacements (from): Andre-Hugo Venter, Kwenzo Blose, Sazi Sandi, Justin Basson, Marcel Theunissen, Thomas Bursey, Abner van Reenen, Juan de Jongh, Lee-Marvin Mazibuko, Niel Otto, Leolin Zas, Cornel Smit.

BRITISH & IRISH LIONS (v Stormers, Cape Town Stadium, Saturday, kick-off 5pm Irish time): Stuart Hogg, capt (Exeter Chiefs, Scotland); Josh Adams (Cardiff, Wales), Elliot Daly (Saracens, England), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster, Ireland), Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors, Scotland); Marcus Smith (Harlequins, England), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland); Rory Sutherland (Worcester Warriors, Scotland), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster, Ireland); Adam Beard (Ospreys, Wales), Jonny Hill (Exeter Chiefs, England); Tadhg Beirne (Munster, Ireland), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh, Scotland), Jack Conan (Leinster, Ireland).

Replacements: Jamie George (Saracens, England), Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, Wales), Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs, England), Gareth Davies (Scarlets, Wales), Chris Harris (Gloucester, Scotland), Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester, Wales).

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