How are the Irish Lions tracking as the Tests come into view?

There are two more games before Warren Gatland picks his team to face the Springboks.

WITH JUST TWO games left before Warren Gatland picks his Lions team for the first Test against the Springboks, players are running out of time to convince the head coach of their merits to be involved.

Tomorrow evening’s clash with South Africa A is likely to be the Lions’ first proper challenge on tour, providing Gatland’s matchday 23 with a prime opportunity to impress.

Ahead of that fixture in Cape Town, we assess the impact that Gatland’s Irish Lions have made so far.

Tadhg Furlong

tahdg-furlong Furlong is in fine form. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The Wexford man has continued his positive form in his two starts and one replacement appearance and remains the strong favourite to be the Lions’ first-choice tighthead for the Tests.

28-year-old Furlong has carried and tackled well, while his set-piece work has been as reliable as ever. He has yet to concede a penalty, whereas tighthead rivals Kyle Sinckler and Zander Fagerson have given up three each.

Furlong is not involved tomorrow against South Africa A but all going well, he will start against the Stormers this Saturday and then be in the number three shirt for the first Test.

Conor Murray

conor-murray Murray captains the Lions for the first time tomorrow.

The Limerick man’s elevation to tour captain following Alun Wyn Jones’ injury underlined his status at the top of the scrum-half pecking order.

Murray had the frustration of being deemed a close contact of a Covid case last week and missed out on the first Sharks game but is set for his second start of the campaign tomorrow night. An assured showing against a strong South Africa A team would likely confirm his place in the Lions’ first Test side. 

Scotland’s Ali Price has done well in his two starts so far but Murray is still expected to be the main man at number nine ahead of him and Wales’ Gareth Davies. 

It will be fascinating to see what happens with the captaincy if Jones returns to the tour, with the Welshman set to fly out in the coming days.

Robbie Henshaw

robbie-henshaw Henshaw has returned to Lions training. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The 28-year-old looked nailed-on for a Test start but has had the frustration of being sidelined with a hamstring injury since the clash with Japan three weekends ago.

Gatland suggested that Henshaw could have played tomorrow and was pushing the head coach to involve him, but he will instead make his return this Saturday against the Stormers.

The Lions’ patience with Henshaw underlines that they see him as an important player. Everything Gatland has said suggests the Leinster centre will be a key man, while his form over the course of this season has been outstanding.

Chris Harris and Elliot Daly have shown their quality at 13 in recent games but that has come against poor opposition. If Henshaw can make a successful return this weekend, he remains the favourite to start the Tests there.

Jack Conan

jack-conan Conan has been dynamic for the Lions. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

A bolter of an inclusion in the overall Lions squad, Conan could yet prove to be a Test squad bolter too.

The Bray man has been impressive in his two starts and one replacement appearance so far, beating four defenders, offloading four times, and completing 100% of his tackles. Lions boss Gatland has praised Conan’s footwork and form.

Taulupe Faletau was the pre-tour favourite in the number eight jersey for the Tests but hasn’t been at his best yet. Tomorrow’s encounter with South Africa A provides the Welshman with a big chance to make a statement. Exeter’s Sam Simmonds has had one start and two sub appearances, showing his ball-carrying dynamism and energy around the pitch. 

Faletau’s performance tomorrow could be decisive if it’s a good one, but any underperformance would leave the door open for Conan.

Tadhg Beirne

tadhg-beirne Beirne has made two starts at blindside flanker. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Another player who was ruled out of involvement in the first Sharks game due to being a close contact, Beirne has also had the opportunity to start two games so far for the Lions.

Both have come at blindside flanker and the Kildare man has impressed against Japan and the Sharks, scoring two tries in last weekend’s game having also dotted down against the Japanese.

While Beirne isn’t content with his defensive breakdown efforts just yet, he remains a unique threat in that area – something Gatland is well aware of. The Munster forward is also a big weapon at the defensive lineout, while he has handling skill and mobility.

Courtney Lawes has also been in strong form too, while Gatland has other blindside options in Tom Curry, Josh Navidi and some of the other out-and-out back rows. It all depends on the exact profile Gatland wants but Beirne is certainly right in the mix. Even if he doesn’t make the starting Test XV, he is a strong contender for a bench role.

Bundee Aki

bundee-aki Aki is a powerful option in midfield. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Another player whose involvement depends on the profile of team that Gatland wants for the first Test. Having had very little form behind him over the course of this season, Aki has made a positive impact on the pitch in games and training for the Lions so far.

His powerful play featured some big turnovers against Japan, while he has carried with dynamism. Aki has been involved in all four games so far – Henshaw’s injury has stretched the midfield resources – and the Connacht man gets his third start tomorrow against South Africa A.

Up against the World Cup-winning duo of Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am in midfield, Aki could make a compelling case for a Test start.

Henshaw is, of course, a contender in the number 12 shirt too, while England’s Owen Farrell provides a different skillset in the position. It’s still difficult to see Gatland leaving Farrell out but Aki will aim to convince the Lions boss tomorrow.

Iain Henderson

iain-henderson Henderson captained the Lions against the Sharks. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The Ulsterman has been superb all season, excelling in this year’s Six Nations for Ireland, so his form in his two starts so far should come as no surprise.

Having captained the Lions in very difficult circumstances for the first Sharks game, the  29-year-old is clearly highly rated by Gatland. 

Jones’ injury had seemingly opened the door for Henderson to start the Tests alongside Maro Itoje in the second row, but the Welshman’s possible return to the tour leaves this area of the team up in the air again.

It would be remarkable for Jones to return and start the first Test for the Lions, so Henderson will be keen to deliver a dominant showing tomorrow night as he looks to convince Gatland that he should be in the team against the Springboks in 11 days’ time.

Jonny Hill and Adam Beard are Henderson’s other rivals for the slot alongside Itoje but while the Englishman was excellent last weekend against the Sharks, Henderson’s consistent form means he should remain ahead in the pecking order.

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