Lions look for Bundee's physicality and more in midfield with Henshaw

Head coach Warren Gatland has explained his selection decisions for the third Test.

Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE LIONS WILL end their 2021 campaign with the midfield partnership that started it.

Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw were thoroughly impressive together in the number 12 and 13 shirts six weekends ago versus Japan and they get the chance to rekindle the combination in Saturday’s third Test against the Springboks.

Some people believe it should have happened earlier but Henshaw was instead paired with Elliot Daly and then Chris Harris in the opening two Tests.

While the Ireland centre has been strong in midfield, neither Daly or Harris has been able to make much of an impression, so in comes Aki ahead of the deciding Test, with Henshaw moving from number 12 to 13 as a result.

Lions boss Warren Gatland is hoping that this proven combination of Ireland internationals can excel in midfield opposite Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am.

“By bringing Bundee in, they used de Allende a lot off nine [scrum-half] as a hit-up merchant so Bundee has been brought in there to try and negate that,” said Gatland.

“But he’s also a good rugby player in terms of getting some go-forward.

“He’s not just a hit-up person, he’s got some really good footwork and offloading ability and the other thing is to give Robbie an opportunity at Test match level in that 13 channel too.

“Bundee and Robbie have a pretty familiar combination and the midfield has always been a bit of a debate for us. We looked at the physicality that Bundee brought in the South Africa A game and the combination of those two working together.”

bundee-aki-with-robbie-henshaw Aki and Henshaw started the Japan game together. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Aki will undoubtedly bring defensive energy as well as his attacking skills, while Henshaw will hope the Lions get the ball into his hands as often as possible after quiet outings for Daly and Harris in the 13 shirt.

The introduction of Aki is one of six changes to Gatland’s starting XV, with Wales loosehead prop Wyn Jones finally fit to start after missing the first two Tests with a shoulder injury.

His compatriot Ken Owens also comes into the team at hooker, with Gatland referring to the “combination between Wyn and Ken in the front row” before later commenting on how unlucky Jamie George has been not to have any Test involvement.

Conor Murray moves to the bench as Ali Price comes back in at scrum-half after he “did pretty well in the first Test” two weekends ago.

Josh Adams has been named on the right wing in place of Anthony Watson, while Liam Williams comes in at fullback for Stuart Hogg.

“One of the definite strengths of Liam is his aerial game and unfortunately with our whole back three last week, we weren’t great in that area,” said Gatland. “We put a lot of balls down so that we felt that we needed to make a couple of changes there.”

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There were some tough calls on the Lions bench too, with Owen Farrell left out for the returning Finn Russell, who is fit again after an Achilles tendon injury kept him out of the first two Tests.

“He just adds something a little bit different and hopefully in that second half when things do loosen up a little bit, we do get some more ball-in-play time and we do get some tempo, so he can come on and add to that,” said Gatland of Russell.

tadhg-beirne Tadhg Beirne drops out of the matchday 23. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Meanwhile, Tadhg Beirne has been omitted from the matchday 23 after brief replacement appearances in the two opening Tests, while Iain Henderson also misses out as Adam Beard instead comes in to provide lock back-up and Sam Simmonds offers back row cover.

“One of the strengths of someone like Adam Beard is his maul defence, he was outstanding in the South Africa A game, he did a great job,” said Gatland.

“To be honest he was quite unlucky not to start the first Test in the second row so we felt we needed someone like that to negate one of their strengths.

“Tadhg has been unlucky and Sam Simmonds, we talked about some of the guys we have on the bench as the game breaks up. He hasn’t had a huge amount of opportunities, he has been training well, he has got that speed and power and hopefully he gets the chance to show that.”

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Murray Kinsella

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