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Henderson’s selection as captain is a chance to break a trend

Ulster man can ensure midweek responsibility does not derail the rest of his tour


Ireland's Iain Henderson will be aiming to impress against South Africa 'A' tomorrow. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

Ireland's Iain Henderson will be aiming to impress against South Africa 'A' tomorrow. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

Ireland's Iain Henderson will be aiming to impress against South Africa 'A' tomorrow. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

Captaining any Lions side is an honour, so it perhaps seemed the Zoom wasn’t read properly when Iain Henderson was reminded that Test history has not always reflected kindly on its midweek leaders.

Thanks for that comment!” the Ulster man smiled after the decently lengthy time allowed for both himself and coach Warren Gatland to speak glowingly about his appointment for the latest warm-up game against the Sharks tomorrow night.

Not since Fergus Slattery on the ‘Invincible’ 1974 tour to South Africa has an Irishman helmed a midweek side – he did so twice – and yet also made the Test team as a starter.

Ronan O’Gara did captain against the Emerging Springboks in 2009 before making the squad for the infamous, brutal second Test in Pretoria, a moment he recalled on TV last weekend.

“I got called over by Ian McGeechan and Warren Gatland and they said, ‘I’ve got some brilliant news for you,’ and I was there, ‘Oh yes, here we go, fantastic.’

“The one thing you do not want to hear is, ‘You’re going to be captain of the team Wednesday night!’

“I was kind of going, ‘Ah, okay, that’s great. That’s what they call experience!’ It’s the one captaincy you do not want, the midweek team on the Wednesday before the first Test!”

At least he made the Test squad, despite its ignominious ending.

Rory Best, on two successive tours, and Donncha O’Callaghan, in 2009, suffered starker twists of contrasting fates – though O’Callaghan at least made the bench for the first Test albeit before slipping out of contention thereafter.

But there is a strong argument that Henderson’s case can utterly buck the trend as he bids to play a leading role in 2021 after being deemed unfortunate by some not to have done so in 2017.

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Although this is a shorter tour, and tomorrow night arguably represents the end of the trial period for 2021 as everyone will have been granted a start, the Ulster man is a much more viable starting option than the recent Irish predecessors who fulfilled this role.

It is not a far-reaching assumption to pitch Maro Itoje and Henderson as the likely second-row combination for the first Test as Gatland, following tomorrow’s analysis of a completely altered XV, begins the process of slotting various combinations in place as he plots his path towards first Test selection.

As such, Henderson’s appointment can be viewed not as a potential reward for merely adhering the wider squad together as a collective, but as a propelling force to solidifying his
status as a pivotal member of Gatland’s first Test selection.

For now, the position is his to lose and his future will copperfasten his position in the rankings, rather than the perils of recounting history cast doubt upon it.

In 1989, Donal Lenihan was the third wheel as skyscraping English pair Wade Dooley and Paul Ackford dominated Test selection.

Such was the success of the unbeaten midweek side, they were labelled ‘Donal’s Donuts’. But it left a bittersweet taste.

“Yes, we played our part,” he said of that 1989 win in Australia, “but a series win just doesn’t mean quite as much if you’re not on the field when the final Test match whistle blows. While you have to put a brave face on things, the Test place is where you want to be.”

In 2009, O’Callaghan came on as the Lions vainly chased a deficit in the first Test just days after he led the midweek side to victory against the Southern Kings but Simon Shaw than leapfrogged him in the pecking order for the second Test.

In 2013, Best led the Lions to their first provincial defeat since 1997, a loss to the Brumbies in which nobody played well. “I felt the world thought I was useless,” he said later.

Although enjoying a more pleasant experience in ‘17, a resounding victory against the Chiefs, he still didn’t make the Test side but still felt that his reputation had been restored.

There are very few players who are called upon to be Lions tourists; fewer still who are accorded its ultimate honour, chosen to lead the best these islands have to offer every four years.

Enda McGinley’s advice to Best four years ago applies now. “Don’t let it define you,” he told him.

Tomorrow night marks a new high in Henderson’s career. But it marks only the start of a looming summer where potential glory awaits.

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