Belfast Telegraph

Henderson is told his Test hopes aren't over, despite latest snub

 

By Jonathan Bradley

British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland has told Iain Henderson he could still feature in his Test plans, despite once again omitting the lock from his match-day squad to face the All Blacks.

Ahead of the second contest with the back-to-back World champions tomorrow (8.35am kick-off), the 25-year-old had been pressing a serious claim to force his way into the side thanks to impressive showings in the recent warm-up matches, but Gatland ignored the growing clamour, instead keeping faith with Welsh lock Alun Wyn Jones and promoting Courtney Lawes to the bench.

The 32-times-capped Ulsterman can consider himself hugely unfortunate having fought back after his tour began in the most inauspicious of manners.

Fluffing the opening kick-off of the very first game against the Provincial Barbarians, he admitted his performance that day was "groggy" and he was then handed only limited minutes off the bench in the loss against the Blues.

Since then, however, he has grown in stature, culminating in his star turn in Tuesday's draw with Hurricanes that had many believing he had forced his way into the Test 23.

In 70 minutes - 10 short of going wire to wire thanks to an ill-timed yellow card - Henderson made 13 carries, accumulating 48 metres.

It had been a similar story two weeks prior against the Highlanders, when Lion No.808 amassed 12 carries, 18 tackles and three line-out takes, as well as forcing one key turnover.

Even when not stuffing the stat sheet, during the games in between against the Chiefs and from the bench against the Maori, he still made an impact, producing a fine scoring pass for Jack Nowell in the former.

In total, Henderson has led Gatland's lock grouping in minutes, carries, metres, clean breaks, scoring passes and defenders beaten, while he is second only to George Kruis in tackles.

Compared to Jones, he is ahead in terms of tackles per minute (one every 8.1 minutes versus one every 8.6) and carries per minute (one every 7.5 to one every 11.6).

When it comes to carries or tackles per minute, Lawes and Maro Itoje are both ahead of the Ulsterman but when compared to Jones, the scales again tilt decidedly in his favour (one every 3.9 minutes compared to one every 4.9 minutes).

It was, however, not enough for Gatland who, after first doing so on Tuesday, again seemed to indicate that his costly yellow card was seen as heavily negating much of the positive impacts.

"The yellow card was disappointing, he would have been disappointed," Gatland said of what was just the second penalty Henderson has conceded on tour.

"I thought his carrying was outstanding and he has caused teams a lot of problems.

"I had a chat with him and just said to keep your head up and that we had spoken a lot about him potentially being involved in the 23.

"Courtney Lawes has done a really good job and Iain has been causing teams a lot of problems with his carrying. He has got better from game to game. I said just because you are not involved this week it doesn't mean you will potentially be excluded from the next Test."

Despite some social media uproar, Jones' pedigree cannot be doubted and naturally there is more to the game than can be seen in statistics alone.

Here is a three-time Lion, now a starter of seven consecutive Tests for the touring collective, and Wales' second most capped player of all time.

Indeed, he was at many points over the last four-year cycle considered the favourite to captain this tour, having filled in for Sam Warburton for the deciding victory over the Wallabies in 2013 after his compatriot was injured.

At 31, he still has plenty of rugby left ahead of him but, after injuring his ankle back in March, he played just once more for the Ospreys before this tour and, despite featuring regularly in the opening games, has still looked some way off the required pace.

It was revealed yesterday that he had acknowledged his poor showing against the All Blacks last weekend to the coaches, who are now banking on a large upturn in fortunes.

In what has the look of a reactionary selection after last week's defeat - Peter O'Mahony, for instance, was deemed good enough to captain this time last week, but not good enough for the 23 tomorrow - Jones still seems a fortunate survivor, even considering his long-term relationship with Gatland.

Dropping the lock was, of course, not the coach's only option.

Extreme Ulster-tinted glasses would be required to deny that England's Lawes has earned his place in the match-day 23, so too Itoje, but the inclusion of both Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton brought with it flexibility.

The pairing of dual play-makers left Gatland able not to include a specialist No.10 on his bench, creating the possibility of a six and two split between forwards and backs among his replacements.

Instead, however, the vacated berth went to Ben Te'o, himself unlucky to drop out of the starting line-up after the tour he has had, with Munster and Ireland's CJ Stander offering the back-row cover.

As has been said throughout this tour as Gatland takes the slings and arrows from all angles, win the crucial second Test tomorrow morning and he'll look like a genius.

But the number of those who are left hoping to be proven wrong seemingly grows by the day.

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