getting close

With first Test looming, Henshaw and the Dunedin crew must stand out

Warren Gatland will send out the majority of his first Test team on Saturday against the Māori All Blacks.

Murray Kinsella reports from Dunedin

A SIX-WEEK schedule might have initially sounded like a seriously long slog but suddenly this Lions tour is whistling by and the first Test is looming large.

Saturday’s meeting with Māori All Blacks in Rotorua, a week out from the first Test, was always likely to tell us plenty about Warren Gatland’s thinking for the opening clash with Steve Hansen’s men and it will certainly involve the core of the Lions’ Test team.

British and Irish Lions Robbie Henshaw during the Captains Run Henshaw will start his second game on Tuesday. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Gatland will hold one or two combinations back to ensure there is some surprise element for 24 June in Eden Park, but time is getting tighter and tighter for players to impress.

The ante was truly upped on Saturday in Christchurch as a strong Lions team impressed in victory over the Crusaders, with many of that XV stressing to Gatland that they are Test-ready.

“I think a lot of people last night put their hands up, didn’t they?” said Gatland on Sunday evening in Dunedin.

“There’s no doubt about that, but that’s the challenge. The guys who are playing on Tuesday night are pretty aware of that. They know they’ve got to perform collectively so they’re in contention.”

Gatland wants to see more players putting pressure on his thinking on Tuesday when the Lions face the Highlanders [KO 8.35am Irish time, Sky Sports], acknowledging that the Māori game will be key.

“After the Tuesday night game, the focus is then on the Māoris. They’ve picked a pretty strong squad and particularly their backline in terms of the quality.

“So I think then our focus, we’ll look at that Maoris game in terms of combinations putting out not a Test team, but pretty close to what we think is starting to look like a Test side.

“Not showing all the combinations, but starting to think about Saturday and then potentially the following week.”

The Forsyth Barr stadium in Dunedin during the Captains Run The Lions had their captain's run at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Monday. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

It’s unlikely that any of those in Tuesday’s team really need a kick up the arse. Those watching Saturday’s win over the Crusaders would certainly have been uncomfortable and a new standard has been set.

Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw is one of those now under pressure to deliver after Ben Te’o's excellent start to this tour, although Gatland focused on the collective when asked specifically about the Leinster man.

Perhaps as interesting for the Lions was how well Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell combined when the Irish out-half was pressed into action far earlier than expected, with Farrell shifting to inside centre.

Their connection in attack was exciting for the Lions and the prospect of them starting the Tests together remains real. Gatland has stated that the Lions haven’t trained with Sexton and Farrell alongside each other but it could be that this is one of the surprises he has been keen to hold back for the All Blacks.

“We didn’t have to manufacture it, that was the way it happened in the game,” said Gatland of the Sexton-Farrell axis.

“The amount of time they had together at number 10 and 12, I thought they went pretty well. I thought Owen was good and Johnny, that was a better performance from Johnny than in the first game he played, and that will give him a little more confidence.

“It was nice to see that combination and that does give us potentially some scope there. Ben Te’o had a good game, having to move out to [outside] centre and cope with that too.

British and Irish Lions Sam Warburton during the Captains Run Sam Warburton is at openside for the Lions. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“We’ve got lots of options, and we’ve just got to pick the right ones. I’m sure there will be a lot of difference of opinion in final selection and that’s going to be the challenge for us.”

Henshaw knows he has to demonstrated exactly how much he brings to part at Forsyth Barr Stadium tomorrow, while captain Sam Warburton understands that he is under pressure after Sean O’Brien’s big performance against the Crusaders.

CJ Stander is in a similar position at number eight, with Taulupe Faletau currently the favourite to start the Tests there, while hooker Rory Best will be eager to push back into Gatland’s thoughts for facing the All Blacks.

In the back three, Jack Nowell and Tommy Seymour get the latest chances to impress on the wings after George North and Liam Williams had quiet outings against the Crusaders.

And at fullback, it will be fascinating to see how Jared Payne goes as Stuart Hogg awaits news of how serious his cheek injury is. Leigh Halfpenny will almost certainly start against the Māoris, meaning Payne is looking at his last genuine shot to convince Gatland.

That’s the case for the majority of the players in this Lions side to face the Highlanders and it should make for a cracking game under the roof in Dunedin.

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