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'Robbie has developed into an absolute world-class midfielder' - Gatland

The Lions boss also said he views Tadhg Beirne as a back row for the tour of South Africa.

Henshaw brings impressive form into the tour.
Henshaw brings impressive form into the tour.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

LIONS BOSS WARREN Gatland says he is expecting a big impact from Bundee Aki and the “world-class” Robbie Henshaw on the upcoming tour to South Africa.

Ireland centres Aki and Henshaw have been named alongside each other in the Lions starting XV to face Japan this Saturday in Edinburgh before Gatland’s squad fly out to South Africa the following day.

Gatland says Aki and Henshaw’s familiarity with each other is a strength, while he views both men as outstanding players in their own right.

“That combination obviously goes back to the Connacht days,” said Gatland this afternoon from Lions camp in Jersey. “It’s the two Connacht lads coming together and I think they are obviously great mates as well so that kinda helps.

“A lot of people sort of see Bundee as someone, and we know he is capable of getting the ball across the gainline, but he’s got a lot more than just that to offer.

“He has got some real rugby skill, some great footwork, and a passing and offloading game. So we are expecting some real quality rugby out of both of those two men.

“I thought Robbie was the outstanding midfielder in the Six Nations. He’s great in the air. I have seen him develop, improve and mature from four years ago [on the Lions tour of New Zealand].

“That’s been probably one of the biggest highlights for me just in terms of how he has developed into an absolute world-class midfielder.

“We are expecting a lot from both of those and I think they are expecting a lot from themselves as well.”

bundee-aki-and-robbie-henshaw Aki and Henshaw at an open training session in Jersey. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Gatland also confirmed that he views Tadhg Beirne as a back row option for the Lions.

Ireland international Beirne can also play in the second row, where Munster usually deploy him, but Gatland believes the Kildare man’s breakdown skills are best suited to the back row.

The Lions head coach has handed Beirne a start in the number six shirt for the clash with Japan this weekend. He will be alongside Jack Conan and Scotland’s Hamish Watson in the back row, and Gatland is excited to see him bring his point of difference to the party.

“He has been very, very good,’ said Gatland of Beirne. “We are probably at this stage looking at him as a back-rower.

“We know he can cover the second row but I spoke to him the other day about ‘what’s your point of difference?’ and he knew straight away what his point of difference is.

“His point of difference is his ability at the breakdown and turnovers and the amount of turnovers that he creates in a game is pretty special for a player.

“We are looking for players to think about what their points of difference are. For Tadhg, that definitely is a big part of his game – the amount of turnovers he is able to create.

“Those sorts of things can change a game and you need players like that to be able to have an impact in a match. He is able to do that and hopefully on the weekend he gets a chance to demonstrate some of those abilities that he has.”

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tadhg-beirne Tadhg Beirne starts at blindside on Saturday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Third-time tourist Conor Murray and second-time tourist Iain Henderson are the other two Irish starters this weekend in an exciting Lions team, while Tadhg Furlong is on the bench.

It has yet to be decided if this clash against Japan will count as a Test match for the Lions players, with the Lions board still due to discuss the matter with the 1888 Club – made up of all former Lions players.

The Lions’ clash against Argentina in 2005 was later deemed to be a Test game but the fixture against the Barbarians in 2013 was not. 

Gatland is of the view that this weekend’s meeting with Japan is very much a Test game.

“We’re playing an international side so, for me, we are playing a Test match,” said Gatland. “Those sorts of decisions are out of my hands in terms of they are for the board to make but I can tell you we’re playing a quality international team that we thoroughly respect.

“They made the World Cup quarter-finals so we are preparing for a Test match, as far as we are concerned, from a playing point of view and a team perspective.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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