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Henderson one of the unlucky ones after Gatland rewards winning Lions

Warren Gatland believes his unchanged 23 have more to give in the final Test.

Murray Kinsella reports from Auckland

WARREN GATLAND WAS asked who the most unlucky players to miss out on playing in a Test on this tour of New Zealand are and the first name he uttered was Iain Henderson.

The dynamic Ireland lock was very impressive after a disappointing opening night against the Provincial Barbarians and on many other tours he would have seen Test action.

The Lions have twice considered going with 6/2 splits on their Test benches and Henderson would likely have been the beneficiary in that case, covering the second row and blindside flank as he does.

Warren Gatland Gatland has stuck with the same 23 as last weekend. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

He’s unfortunate, but Henderson’s absence from any of the Test squad this weekend also indicates how good a position the Lions are in coming into tomorrow’s decider in Auckland.

They have named a completely unchanged 23 for the third Test, something that last happened in 1993. So while there are unlucky players – Gatland also mentions Justin Tipuric and Jonathan Joseph – it’s a luxury for the Lions.

And after beating the All Blacks in Wellington, Gatland was loath to mix things up unnecessarily.

“It wasn’t something we expected, we obviously expected injuries,” said the Lions boss. “It wasn’t a difficult selection for us. We felt guys came off the bench and made a really good impact last week.

We could have made a few changes but he felt those guys needed to be rewarded for last week’s effort.

“We also still don’t think we’re at our best, we still think we can improve. Obviously, there’s going to be an improvement in the All Blacks but it’s something we don’t think is going to be a shock to us.”

So it is that the same 23 go again for the Lions on Saturday, with Liam Williams having come through after a brief scare with tightness in his leg during training on Wednesday in Queenstown.

The likes of Henderson miss out, but Gatland points out that the non-Test players have had important roles in the build-up, pushing the match day squad hard in training and adding a little bit of fire to proceedings.

“We had a pretty tasty session today, with some verbals,” said Gatland on Thursday. “It was a bit testy.

The team huddle The Lions trained at QBE Stadium on Thursday. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Everyone is pretty aware how important the game is. It’s about having emotional control, you want to take it to the edge but you don’t want to go over the top as well.”

As well as getting physically and verbally stuck into the Test side in training, the back-up players have been providing some inspiration, particularly in the leadership group.

“Rory Best spoke earlier in the week about how the Irish felt they didn’t handle the physicality that the All Blacks brought in the game two weeks after the Chicago game, even though they’d spoken about it,” said Gatland.

“We’re ready for it. I think they’re going to try dominate us up front, particularly in the tight five, and try and give some of their inexperienced backs some go forward.

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“If they don’t get that advantage up front – and we’re aware of making sure we try and negate the threat of their tight five – it should make the game interesting.”

The All Blacks remain favourites in most places, 11-point favourites to many, but the Lions squad have a real edge of confidence this week.

There is an understanding of how ferocious the Kiwis will be after a home defeat, of course, but Gatland and co. feel they have flipped this relationship on its head.

The Lions’ belief is that the Kiwis are worrying about them now, making three changes in their backline to deal with the tourists’ strengths. Conversely, Gatland says the Lions haven’t really thought about their opposition this week.

Warren Gatland Gatland has a real edge of confidence this week. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“It’s kinda like how the All Blacks go into games not worried about the opposition, just going to pick their own team, play their own game and worry about themselves. That’s what we have been doing.

“They’ve looked like they have picked a team initially to stop our defensive line speed, maybe picked a team now to stop our 10-12 combination. They’ve changed their game plan and style.

“I see that as a massive sign of respect of them to us, them looking at us, negating our strengths and threats and that’s a positive.

“Hopefully we leave on Saturday having earned the respect of the New Zealand public and secured the future of the Lions.”

As ever, the man in the middle and his team of match officials will have a say in deciding tomorrow’s game, and Gatland is hoping to see the Lions given every chance.

While he didn’t go as far as openly stating that referees have previously favoured New Zealand at home, Gatland did underline that he is looking for Romain Poite and his assistants to bring an appreciation that the Lions are good enough to take the series.

“We’ve got the confidence and self-belief to win this Saturday and win the series, so all we ask of them is to be open-minded, not to be surprised by us being in front and good enough to win.

“That’s an important message I am trying to deliver. I am not questioning their integrity or anything. It’s just that sometimes it’s a mindset – the message is just if there are some 50-50 calls, to be open-minded.”

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Murray Kinsella

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