Iain Henderson accuses Warren Gatland of picking his Lions 'favourites' instead of on form

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British & Irish Lions captain Iain Henderson on the attack at Emirates Airline Park on July 7, 2021 in Johannesburg, South Africa. - GETTY IMAGES
British & Irish Lions captain Iain Henderson on the attack at Emirates Airline Park on July 7, 2021 in Johannesburg, South Africa. - GETTY IMAGES

Iain Henderson, the British and Irish Lions lock, has openly suggested that Lions head coach Warren Gatland opted to pick preferred players over those who were in form during the tour of South Africa this summer.

Henderson cited the late addition to the touring squad of Northampton and England forward Courtney Lawes as an example, with Lawes recovering from a pectoral injury which had kept him out since March to make the squad.

Lawes went on to start in all three Tests in the series with the Springboks. Henderson, selected by Gatland for the past two Lions tours, was not included in the Test squad in South Africa, as was the case four years earlier in New Zealand.

Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones started all three Tests for the Lions in the second row, with Lawes at blindside flanker. Tadhg Beirne and Adam Beard were used as lock replacements during the Test series, ahead of Henderson.

"I would tend to agree with that statement [about Gatland picking favourites over form]," Henderson explained, speaking to BBC Radio Ulster.

"A bit of evidence from it maybe would be Courtney Lawes, for example. He hadn't played a lot of rugby, and was injured going in [to the tour], missed a lot of rugby and came in - as a bit of a surprise, maybe - and started all three Tests.

"Don't get me wrong, I think Courtney is a class player and he probably deserved to be playing, but that would lead you to believe that he probably wasn't picking who was in form at that stage."

Henderson also called into question the Lions' tactical approach following the kick-heavy Test series, which was maligned by supporters and pundits alike. The 63-cap lock added that adopting a similar approach to South Africa merely played into the world champions' hands.

"You could play South Africa's game-plan against the Sharks or someone like that and whenever you get however many points up, you're winning the 50-50s, the slap-downs become a 50m try and all of a sudden people go 'well they're playing free-flowing rugby today'," Henderson said.

"Before you know it, you're trying to beat South Africa at their own game. South Africa just won a World Cup doing their own game. They're incredible at it. Falling into what they're incredibly good at I think is something a team probably shouldn't try to do playing a team like that."

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