Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Henderson a standout as Ulster trio give Lions coach Gatland food for thought


By Jonathan Bradley

A second midweek defeat for the Lions and it was a night in Dunedin when more than a handful of tourists became dirt-trackers.

Again Warren Gatland's side had a late chance to steal a see-sawing game - both Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly missed kicks off the tee in the final 12 minutes - but, in their southernmost game in the Land of the Long White Cloud, a late penalty from the Highlanders' Marty Banks certainly left the visitors with a somewhat sinking feeling.

But if there seems an increasing divide between the apparent Test team, the bulk of whom are expected to now face the Maori in Rotorua on Saturday, and the rest, one player who stood out yesterday was Ulster's Iain Henderson.

A big day for his province, with three players wearing the red jersey in the same game for a first time since 1974, it was the 25-year-old lock who pressed the most convincing claim, putting in a performance that saw him back to his combative best.

Whangarai and his subdued outing in the tour opener seemed a world away, with Henderson recapturing the form last seen against England in the Six Nations, a game that seemingly sealed his place on this tour.

Taking the ball at pace, Henderson's carrying made an impact in the early stages but his defensive work came to the fore as the game progressed.

His biggest play came as the hour approached and with the Lions camped on their own five metre line.

Using every inch of his 6'5'' frame, Henderson bust through the bodies to secure a big a turnover.

"Munched through opposition at rucks like Pacman," said the New Zealand Herald, while, for a player who often looks better the more he plays, going the full 80 minutes will have done no harm either.

With Courtney Lawes injured in the act of attempting to stop Waisake Naholo's try, congestion on the road to the Test 23 as a lock may be further eased somewhat, even if it is still one of the most competitive areas of the squad with George Kruis, Alun Wyn Jones and Maro Itoje all in the running.

After seeing his stock rise considerably, Henderson's next outing, whether it be against the Maori this weekend or the Chiefs next Tuesday, could be the key to his tour.

With Stuart Hogg having been ruled out of the remainder of the trip overnight thanks to a facial injury, and none of Gatland's back-three options making the most compelling of cases so far, it was a big chance too for Jared Payne who got the nod in the 15 jersey.

Having had a disrupted tour - the Kiwi native had to pull out of the first game with injury before limping off against the Blues - Payne has yet to play much rugby after an injury-plagued season but made a bright start.

With the Highlanders playing a number of probing kicks over the top of the Lions' defensive line, Payne's reading of the game was clear as he played a good sweeping role, while he also made a crucial try-saving tackle in the corner in the early stages.

Some rust was still evident though as a couple of knock-ons, most prominently in the moments directly after Sam Warburton's score, means Payne will still have some work to do if he is to dislodge 2013 incumbent Leigh Halfpenny from the full-back slot in time for the Test series.

The most experienced of Ulster's Lions on show was Rory Best and the Irish skipper once again proved his value in the loose. Indeed his first-half turnover was classic Best, and there were no problems at line-out time.

But as the man himself said this week, people can tend to overlook what a hooker does around the park, and in the minds of some he was starting from behind the eight ball after his part in the well-publicised set-piece failure in the final seconds of last week's Auckland defeat.

With himself, Jamie George and Ken Owens all fighting for two spots, it continues to be an interesting selection debate.

Former Ulster player Tommy Seymour, who was educated at Down High and came through the Academy here, also started, scoring one try and coming inches away from another.

The wing did, however, have his hands full with Naholo all game.

Again though, it is in the back three where there are perhaps most question marks.

This morning's team selection for Saturday's unofficial "Fourth Test", should at least provide a few answers.

Belfast Telegraph


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