Iain Henderson, Jack Conan, and Robbie Henshaw.

An up-and-down tour for the Irish Lions could end on a high

Jack Conan, Tadhg Furlong, and Robbie Henshaw have been named to start all three Tests.

LAST UPDATE | 4 Aug 2021

ALL SEVEN OF the Ireland internationals who set off for South Africa with the Lions five weekends ago would have travelled with strong ambitions of winning a Test cap, so a return of six from seven doesn’t look too bad.

Iain Henderson is the unlucky one from that group of seven to miss out and he must have been close to coming into the matchday 23 for this weekend’s third clash with the Springboks in particular.

The Ulsterman looked firmly set for Test involvement at one stage but that was before Alun Wyn Jones’ remarkable return as tour captain. When Jones’ comeback was confirmed, Henderson’s chances took a big hit and he will probably reflect on the Lions’ defeat to South Africa A, when he was the captain, as having been damaging too.

Many would have included Henderson on the Lions’ bench this weekend ahead of Adam Beard, but head coach Warren Gatland has indicated that the Welshman’s maul defence edged him ahead. It means Henderson is set to return home from a second Lions tour without a Test cap.

Bundee Aki’s selection at inside centre for this weekend will bring him into the Lions Test club and is reward for his positive influence on the group despite not being involved over the past two weekends. More importantly, Gatland is interested in the physicality Aki can bring in a proven midfield combination with Robbie Henshaw.

Henshaw has been one of the Lions’ better players in the series so far, although he’s still waiting for that momentum-shifting moment Gatland knows he is capable of. The Leinster centre has been very close to pulling off some big aerial wins for the Lions, while his defence has been robust and his ball-carrying typically dogged.

Henshaw will hope to see plenty of the ball with his move to the number 13 shirt this weekend after Elliot Daly and Chris Harris were under-utilised in that position in the first two Tests. 

tom-curry-with-tadhg-furlong Furlong is set for his sixth consecutive Lions Test start. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Joining Henshaw in starting all three clashes with the Boks is tighthead Tadhg Furlong, who is on track for his sixth consecutive Test start for the tourists after being a key man in New Zealand in 2017 too.

Furlong hasn’t had things all his own way at scrum time against the South Africans, opting for a long and high bind on the loosehead, which appeared to be partly at fault for a key scrum penalty he conceded last weekend. The condition of the pitch didn’t help.

There haven’t been too a huge number of carries or tackles to make with the ball so often out of play or up in the air during this series, but Furlong has brought his characteristic work-rate and mobility to the mix, as well as some venom around the ruck. He will back himself to deliver his best yet this Saturday.

Jack Conan is another who has been named to start for the third consecutive Test, something that wasn’t foreseen by many before this tour. Free of injury and with nothing to lose, Conan has thoroughly impressed Gatland to grab hold of the number eight jersey.

Conan was a standout in the first Test victory but would have been disappointed with one or two elements of his showing last weekend, most notably when the Lions missed a chance to break left off a five-metre scrum when Faf de Klerk had already shifted across to their right. Conan could have used a call from someone else to over-ride the initial play call down that right-hand side.

Gatland resisted the temptation to mix up his back row for this third Test, backing Conan, Courtney Lawes and Tom Curry to deliver their best showing yet.

It’s impressive that 28-year-old Conan will return home as a three-Test Lion and his battle with the likes of Caelan Doris and Gavin Coombes will be intriguing in the seasons ahead. This tour has certainly seen him emerge as a force at the top level.

conor-murray-dejected-after-the-game Murray has had an up-and-down time with the Lions. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Conor Murray, meanwhile, has admitted that this tour has been very up-and-down for him on a personal level. He was the captain in Jones’ absence but then had to settle for a bench spot for the first Test as Ali Price was preferred at scrum-half.

Murray returned to the starting XV last weekend but has again swapped places with Price for the deciding Test. The Limerick man will hope to be on the pitch to guide the Lions to series success in the second half. That he is set for his eighth consecutive Lions Test appearance across three tours is a huge achievement.

His Munster team-mate, Tadhg Beirne, has picked up two Test caps in South Africa – another big achievement – but would have hoped for a more prominent role, having been limited to nine- and seven-minute cameos. There had been calls for him to start this weekend but he misses out on the matchday 23 altogether.

It does seem a shame that Beirne’s game-changing abilities at the breakdown, lineout defence, and with ball in hand haven’t been harnessed by the Lions, but the reality is that Gatland has an array of outstanding players to choose from.

Andrew Porter, who was initially selected in the squad but missed out due to injury, would likely have won Test caps as back-up to Furlong, so the series has surely been frustrating watching for him.

23-year-old Rónan Kelleher didn’t get a chance to feature on the pitch but he will no doubt feel the experience of being in the Lions environment was beneficial.

The Irish experiences have definitely varied on this tour but with five of them in the matchday 23 for Saturday’s final Test, it could end on a high.

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