Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


The Lions’ options in the centres

Chris Harris
2021 British & Irish Lions Tour To South Africa British & Irish Lions Gym Session and Squad Training, South Africa 1/7/2021 Chris Harris Mandatory credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Prior to the tour kicking off the centre positions looked very much a case of Robbie Henshaw + A.N. Other. The Irishman’s lack of game time – due to a ‘minor’ hamstring strain – has thrown preparations up in the air a bit but having returned to the lineup on Saturday against the Stormers it still looks most likely it’s all about finding a partner for the Leinster player. Here are the options:

12. Bundee Aki / 13. Robbie Henshaw

Game time for the Lions on this tour – 55 minutes

Pros – powerful carrying, familiarity

Cons – lack of kicking options, arguably Henshaw’s best position is 12

Apart from a single outing for Farrell / Daly against South Africa nearly five years ago, the Aki / Henshaw partnership is the only one with any starts together outwith this Lions’ tour. They have previously paired up on 14 occasions as 12 and 13 for Connacht and also another dozen times for Ireland.

If there are concerns about getting the backline to gel this could be a shortcut to some more instinctive understanding between the starting centres, however, it’s unlikely to be the best use of playing resources with the talent available.

12. Owen Farrell / 13. Robbie Henshaw

Game time for the Lions on this tour – 25 minutes

Pros – second playmaker at 12, the two most experienced players

Cons – second playmaker not necessarily required if Hogg plays 15, Farrell not quite on peak form, arguably Henshaw’s best position is 12

Pre-tour this might have been viewed as the most likely pairing for the Test series and they were given 25 minutes together in the first game against Japan, working outside Dan Biggar at 10.

One of the reasons for Owen Farrell starting at 12 for England is to deal with the goal-kicking. Biggar is a superior goalkicker though so if he is starting at 10 there is less need to call on Farrell to start in the centres.

12. Robbie Henshaw / 13. Elliot Daly

Game time for the Lions on this tour – 58 minutes

Pros – good blend of defence / attack and power / creativity

Cons – Daly’s shortage of Test experience at centre, low tackle completion percentage for Daly

This would be a blend of the guy who was expected to walk into the Test team in midfield and the guy not too many people expected to be in the squad – and certainly not as a centre!

Daly has certainly grabbed every chance thrown at him on tour. His boot would be very useful in the territorial battle with the Springboks. That tackle completion of 16 made and 9 missed (64% – the lowest of any player on tour) has to be a concern though in a position that can often be exposed in defence.

12. Robbie Henshaw / 13. Chris Harris

Game time for the Lions on this tour – none

Pros – defensive solidity, Henshaw in his strongest position

Cons – lack of kicking options, creativity takes a hit

This would be the option to try if the Lions’ primary ambition was to shut down the Springboks in midfield – which is not to denigrate their attacking work but while this would definitely be the number 1 combination for defence it would be a little behind in other areas.

If Henshaw’s hamstring issues hadn’t surfaced then it’s possible this combination might have been tried in one of the Sharks’ fixtures. Without any game time together it would be an extremely bold pick to start them in the First Test.

Other centre pairings tried on this tour:

  • 12. Bundee Aki / 13. Elliot Daly – 103 minutes
  • 12. Chris Harris / 13. Elliot Daly – 99 mins
  • 12. Bundee Aki / 13. Chris Harris – 80 mins
  • 12. Owen Farrell / 13. Chris Harris – 60 mins

If Henshaw doesn’t make it then what would be the strongest choice? Taking into account the balance required between kicking options, defence and attack – with the ability to shut down the Springboks probably at a slight premium over the ability to unlock their defensive systems – as well as form on tour and keeping players in familiar roles then 12. Owen Farrell / 13. Chris Harris could well be the way to go.


A significant factor that may well impact the centre selections is the possibility of going for a 6 forwards and 2 backs split on the bench. In order to make that feasible then Owen Farrell (covers 10 and 12) and Elliot Daly (covers 11, 13, 14 and 15) both have to be in the 23.

If Henshaw is a shoe-in then that decides the personnel and it comes down to:

12. Farrell / 13. Henshaw (23. Daly)
12. Henshaw / 13. Daly (23. Farrell)

The latter seems the bolder selection and the one with the best chance of breaking down the Springboks and winning the game rather than trying to avoid losing it.

17 Responses

  1. A well presented analysis and when you read it, it makes perfect sense. Baring Gatland being abducted by aliens and the tombola coming out , if have every faith in that conclusion.

  2. Team for South Africa

    Stuart Hogg (Captain) – Anthony Watson – Chris Harris – Robbie Henshaw – Duhan Van Der Merwe – Dan Biggar – Ali Price – Tom Curry – Hamish Watson – Tadhg Beirne – Maro Itoje – Iain Henderson – Tadhg Furlong – Luke Cowan Dickie – Wyn Jones

    Elliot Daly – Owen Farrell – Connor Murray – Taulupe Faletau – Alun Wyn Jones – Zander Fagerson – Jamie George – Rory Sutherland

  3. Is it just me but when you look at the photos of the Lions training on their website there isn’t one of an individual Scot but there are many English, Welsh and Irish. Please correct me if I am wrong

  4. Excellent article.

    It seems to come down to how much Gatland will put faith in proven quality over performance in the tour with regards Henshaw. Given he has played so little and was not really a superstar when he played at the weekend. ps the same applies to Hogg I would say.

    The only combination I would be against is any with Farrell at 12. He’s been poor for 12 months and then poor on tour.

    With tartan specs off I think Harris has done himself credit but as he is basically a 13 only (when compared to other players) he is probably a bit harder to see as a bench player and thus probably misses out.

    However I would be gobsmacked if the same pair play all three games.

  5. I would be surprised if Gatland opts for a 6/2 split. My guess is the game will be just as attritional in the backs. More than one injury (or an injury after you’ve already used your sub) means players out of position. Anyone remember the Calcutta Cup of 2017?
    How about an all Scottish backs bench of Price (covering 9), Hogg (10/15) and Harris (12/13)? With Williams or Watson starting at fullback you have the wings covered.

    1. I think he will go 6/2 as well and feel players like Vunipolla, LCD, Jones, Watson, Connan and a Lawes can really ramp the energy up and put legs in the side that way.

      Price and Daly as back cover, Daly can cover, center, wing if needed.

      A back 3 of Hogg, Williams and Watson covers a lot of bases at wing, full back and in Hoggs case 10 in a worst case scenario

      RE the original article I think it understates Henshaw slightly, he is pretty seamless at 12 and 13 for me, in this day and age the two positions are also pretty comparable in skillset IMO, I think you need to be able to do a lot of both to play both, I would say Harris and Henshaw at the two who can both do 12/13 pretty well.

      1. No question Henshaw is international class in both positions – I just think you get the absolute best out of him by playing him at 12.

        So Daly v Farrell isn’t just those 2 players head to head because in the Daly pairing you’re also getting a bit more out of Henshaw than when he’s outside Farrell.

  6. Saffa team is out. They have a 5-3 bench split. Kolisi back in as skipper.

    Good team but not a lot of game time and several have not had time to train either. The BIL have to try to win this game by out lasting the Springboks and playing at high tempo. You’ve got to think the Lions will be fitter come the second half. But by game three that advantage may well be gone.

  7. Surely a lot depends on AWJ, which is a selection issue that I’m sure Gatland doesn’t want. And the bench split will be a result of that decision. Not my liking but with a 6/2 split then Farrell will prob be at 12.

  8. Hogg; Watson, Harris, Henshaw, Adams; Biggar, Price
    Sutherland, George, Furlong; Itoje, Jones (C); Beirne, Watson; Conan
    (Cowan-Dickie, Jones, Sinckler, Beard, Curry, Murray, Russell, Daly)

    Farrell on the bench for this one though, as Russell’s injured.

    It’s weird, because I think that Henshaw and Harris will start on the basis that they’re the best out of those centres at the moment. But you’re right in that they haven’t played together much. To be honest, sometimes I wonder about the efficacy of an Aki-Harris centre pairing, especially if they had Russell inside them. Could be a nice combination.

  9. Times ‘scoop’ claims this is the team:

    S Hogg; A Watson, E Daly, R Henshaw, D van der Merwe; D Biggar, A Price; W Jones, L Cowan-Dickie, T Furlong, A W Jones (c), M Itoje, C Lawes, T Curry, J Conan.

    Replacements K Owens, R Sutherland, K Sinckler, T Beirne, H Watson, I Henderson, C Murray, O Farrell.

    1. The official announcement has been brought forward to tomorrow morning. I like the back three a lot. Some might say harsh on Adams but I highly doubt he’ll get easy run tries in a test series like he did in the warmup games against poorer opposition. Its clear that Toonie and Tandy’s presence at the selection meetings has had an impact.

      Hogg might take over as skipper when AWJ starts blowing and is replaced by Henderson.

      1. If it’s brought forward presumably this is the real team?

        If so big result for Scottish boys, let’s hope they do themselves proud. Watson can have a big impact from the bench.

        I can see the need to add Daly for a bit more midfield creativity but if his defence doesn’t hold up Harris will be drafted in for Test number 2

  10. I can see the times ‘scoop’ team being a reality although i would still opt for the Mish at 7.
    Regarding the centres, I would never have dreamt that Harris would get anywhere near this team prior to this years 6N but i have to say he has been the standout centre for me during the 6N and on this tour and i believe you have to go with form. While it may not prove to be the most creative partnership ,if i was Gatland , Harris would be in at 13 and whoever can partner him the best is on at 12.
    There has been far too much focus on what players have done in the past, we know Henshaw is class but he remains pretty untested on this tour and i wouldn’t build my team around him, or for that matter around AWJ, Vunipola,Farrel or Murray

    1. I can see Curry and Lawes having a rough time against their back row in the first half especially at the breakdown. Mish and Beirne to come off the bench and save the day and cement their place in the starting line up for the second test.

    2. Can’t object too much to Henshaw over Harris, especially at 12…

      The backs selection especi sally Daly all comes down to the 6-2 split. Harris is not really compatible with the 6-2 split. If a back three player gets crocked, presumably it’s Daly back to cover that, Farrell to 12, Henshaw to 13.

      Also with Finn injured, Gatland is sort of forced to have Farrell on the bench as 10 cover, which also means you get a centre option there…If Finn’s fit this might change the split back to 5-3, maybe Daly on the bench, possibly room for Harris at 13, or vice versa.

      Watson a bit unlucky, but not more so than Tadgh Beirne. We’ll see how Lawes and Curry get on…the second mouse might get the cheese!

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