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Henderson has the qualities to play a big role in the Lions Test series

The Ulster man had a superb Six Nations for Ireland.

Henderson has been in superb form this year.
Henderson has been in superb form this year.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

WHILE HE STARTED this year’s Six Nations on the Ireland bench, Iain Henderson ended up having perhaps his best-ever championship.

It kick-started with 56 superb minutes against Wales as the Ulster man made a telling impact in replacing the injured James Ryan.

Peter O’Mahony’s early red card left Ireland in a hole but they came within a remarkable Justin Tipuric try-saving tackle on Garry Ringrose of claiming a stirring victory in Cardiff. Henderson was at the heart of most of the good stuff.

He started the remaining four games in Ireland’s campaign and played some of the best Test rugby of his career. His turnover count was seven, five of them at the breakdown and two in the tackle, as the 29-year-old highlighted one of his key points of difference.

There was powerful ball-carrying as always but also 17 fine examples of Henderson’s comfort in passing the ball. His discipline was superb as he avoided conceding even in a single penalty despite his competitiveness at the breakdown and in the tackle.

Topping it all off, he resumed his duties as Ireland’s primary lineout caller and showed again that he can be superb on both sides of the ball at maul time.

Henderson also captained Ireland at senior level for the first time against France. 

Lions boss Warren Gatland can’t have been anything but impressed as we saw Henderson arguably realise the full scale of his potential at international level. 

iain-henderson-is-tackled-by-maro-itoje Henderson on the charge in Ireland's win over England. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

In that light, Henderson was a straightforward pick for the Lions squad, particularly having toured in 2017 when he didn’t get a Test cap. His chances of doing so in South Africa in the coming weeks now look good.

The injury to tour captain Alun Wyn Jones has obviously made Henderson’s case for Test inclusion all the more compelling. Gatland has referenced the number of leaders new tour skipper Conor Murray will have around him and Henderson is clearly one of them.

Gatland has named him captain for tomorrow’s clash with the Sharks in Johannesburg and the Lions boss will be acutely aware of the need for calm heads alongside Murray in the white-hot pressure of the Test matches.

While Henderson only captained Ireland for the first time this season, he has been part of their leadership group for some time and succeeded Rory Best as Ulster captain in 2019.

Of course, Gatland won’t be picking his Test teams based on leadership credentials alone.

Henderson’s form in the second row also stands him in good stead. His performance two weekends ago versus Japan was a continuation of his strong showings with Ireland and Ulster.

Henderson called the Lions’ lineout at 100% as they won all 16 of their own throws and laid the foundation for some of the team’s best attacking passages. Maro Itoje can also call lineouts, but it’s a nice string to Henderson’s bow.

There were a couple of reminders of Henderson’s power in the carry against the Japanese, while eight passes also showed the skill level he has always possessed. 

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ken-owens-iain-henderson-tadhg-furlong-and-wyn-jones Henderson speaks to the Lions squad at training yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Defensively, he was busy with 11 tackles and also provided a turnover assist for Jack Conan at the breakdown. All in all, it was a pleasing start to his campaign with the Lions and Henderson will look to deliver even more tomorrow against a Sharks team that looks callow on paper.

Itoje is the heavy favourite for one slot in the Lions’ second row and Henderson appears to be in competition with Jonny Hill and Adam Beard for the other. Gatland has stated his preference for Tadhg Beirne at blindside flanker, while Courtney Lawes also impressed there against the Sigma Lions last Saturday.

One key consideration for the Lions will be the scrum. Injured tour captain Jones was set to be their tighthead lock but we saw Henderson switching over to the tighthead slot after the Welshman’s injury against Japan.

When Henderson plays with James Ryan for Ireland, the latter has generally scrummaged at tighthead lock – as did Devin Toner before him – but Henderson was on the right-hand side of the second row when paired with Beirne in this year’s Six Nations.

England’s Hill is regarded as strong in this area but does not possess the complete skillset Henderson has around the pitch.

Beard, who scrummages on the loosehead side when paired with Jones for Wales, is a late arrival onto tour and he also possesses fine handling and maul skills to go along with his size, but he is starting from further back.

Gatland will be hoping to watch Henderson deliver a dominant performance tomorrow in Johannesburg with the door now open for the Ireland lock to keep his momentum going all the way into the Test side.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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