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.