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Henshaw primed to play a central role in a dangerous Lions backline

20-year-old Louis Rees-Zammit has been included among the Lions’ back three options.

 AFTER LOOKING AT the Lions’ options in the front row, the back five of the scrum, and the halfbacks already this week, we now turn our attention to the midfield and back three with only a week until their opening game against Japan at Murrayfield.

Warren Gatland has opted for just three out-and-out centres, but he has an array of strong options in the back three.

The format listed below is [age, national team Test caps, Lions Test caps].  

Centres

Robbie Henshaw [28, 52, 0]

Bundee Aki [31, 31, 0]

Chris Harris [30,28, 0]

robbie-henshaw Henshaw has been playing superb rugby this season. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Robbie Henshaw has been one of the leading players in European rugby this season and looks set to be an integral part of the Lions’ bid to beat the world champions.

The Leinster and Ireland centre is comfortable in either the 12 or 13 shirt, offering decisive defensive reads and tackling, strong in-contact skills, good footwork before contact, an ability to make short passes and offloads, and world-class aerial skills.

The 28-year-old was on the last Lions tour but didn’t get picked for the first Test and then flew home with a pectoral injury before the end of that trip to New Zealand. It looks like he will have a far more prominent role this time around.

As discussed yesterday, Owen Farrell is an option in the number 12 shirt, where he plays for England and where he played the two most recent Lions Tests. He and Henshaw could combine in midfield against the Boks, with Farrell’s kicking ability part of the attraction of potentially playing him in midfield outside Dan Biggar.

However, Gatland also has two other centres to select from. Scotland’s Chris Harris is a clever outside centre who has grown notably as a force at Test level in the last year with a string of strong performances in the number 13 shirt.

The Gloucester man has a pleasing ability to get outside defenders, challenging the edge of the defence, while his defensive reads are generally intelligent. 

bundee-aki Bundee Aki during a Lions gym session this week. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ireland’s Bundee Aki was a shock selection, given that he has had a very stop-start season. The Connacht man played just once in the Six Nations as Andy Farrell preferred Henshaw and Garry Ringrose in the Irish midfield, but Aki timed his single appearance well as he played a role in their impressive win over England.

Aki was red-carded in the final quarter of that game, however, and his suspension means he comes into this tour short of game time. His selection underlines the fact that form isn’t everything when it comes to picking Test squads. 

Gatland is clearly a fan of Aki’s power in contact, relentless defensive energy, and infectious confontational character. On top of that, Aki is a consistent jackal threat at the breakdown and has been working hard to improve his distribution skills.

Aki’s powerful approach in midfield is something that Gatland believes will be well suited to the challenges in South Africa. England’s Elliot Daly also covers outside centre, with his versatility useful on a tour like this one.

Back threes

Stuart Hogg [28, 85, 0]

Liam Williams [30, 71, 3]

Anthony Watson [27, 51, 3]

Josh Adams [26, 32, 0]

Elliot Daly [28, 52, 3]

Louis Rees-Zammit [20, 9, 0]

Duhan van der Merwe [26, 10, 0]

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stuart-hogg Stuart Hogg has been outstanding for Scotland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Gatland’s squad selection means he could opt for the same Test back three as he picked last time around – Liam Williams at fullback with Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly on the wings.

However, Stuart Hogg’s candidacy for the number 15 shirt will be tough to ignore. The Scotland captain has already been part of two Lions tours but has yet to be involved in a Test, with his trip to New Zealand in 2017 cruelly cut short by a fractured cheekbone.

He is a thrilling attacking player, beating 20 defenders, making seven clean breaks, and offloading seven times in this year’s Six Nations, but has rounded out his game with better distribution – 67 passes in the Six Nations – and a superb, varied kicking game.

The 28-year-old was dropped to the Exeter bench for this weekend’s Premiership semi-final against Sale but has proven his quality over a long period of time.

That said, Wales fullback Liam Williams is the incumbent at number 15 for the Lions and excelled there on the 2017 tour, delivering a fiery competitive edge, backfield and aerial reliability, and ambitious counter-attacking – strengths he has provided for Wales in the intervening years. 

Of course, Daly is at home at fullback too, with his left-footed kicking game particularly strong. The Saracens man is also comfortable in stepping up as a first receiver, providing the backline with another playmaker. Daly’s versatility in covering the wing, outside centre, and fullback makes him the ideal number 23 if Gatland opts for a 6-2 bench split against the Boks, while his long-range goal-kicking is also useful.

louis-rees-zammit Louis Rees-Zammit at the beach in Jersey. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Gatland has some excellent choices out wide, with England’s Watson another of the returning 2017 Lions. The Bath man has top-level acceleration and is very robust through contact, while his return of 22 tries in 51 England Tests shows he can finish strongly.

Josh Adams’ record of 17 tries in 32 Wales Tests underlines his ability to get over the tryline too and he is another physically powerful man who has improved every year since his debut in 2018, adding better defensive decision-making and aerial skills to his repertoire.

His wing partner for Wales is 20-year-old Louis Rees-Zammit, a breakout star who has scored five tries in his nine Tests so far. The Gloucester man’s speed is frightening even at the highest level of the sport while he appears to be a very composed character who has embraced every single step up he has been asked to make. 

Scotland’s Duhan van der Merwe has also made the cut and provides outstanding physical power to go along with his speed. The Edinburgh flyer is very useful as a ball-carrying weapon on first phase off set-pieces, a role Lions attack coach Gregor Townsend has used him in repeatedly.

Van der Merwe only made his Test debut last year and there remain unpolished parts of his game but he would be well suited to the physical contest against his native South Africa.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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