Gatland’s Lions selections were not based on form, says Ireland lock Henderson
Date: Thursday, 23 September Time: 22:00 BST
Coverage: BBC Two NI and the iPlayer
Warren Gatland did not base his British and Irish Lions Test team selections on form in South Africa, says Ulster and Ireland lock Iain Henderson.
Henderson toured with the Lions for a second time but, as in 2017, did not make any of the Test squads.
Speaking on BBC Sport NI’s Ulster Rugby Show, Henderson was responding to the suggestion that Gatland selected players based on familiarity over form.
“I would tend to agree with that statement,” he said.
“Courtney Lawes, for example, hadn’t played a lot of rugby, was injured going in, missed a lot of rugby, comes in and starts all three tests.
“Don’t get me wrong, Courtney is a class player and he probably deserved to be playing, but that would lead you to believe that he [Gatland] wasn’t picking on who was on form at the stage, because Courtney had already banked his form from before.”
Henderson was one of Ireland’s star performers in the Six Nations, captaining them for the first time against France before being selected to skipper the Lions against Cell C Sharks.
The 29-year-old appeared in a strong position to play a part in the Test series, but a remarkable recovery from Alun Wyn Jones saw the tour captain return in time for the first game against the Springboks despite dislocating his shoulder four weeks earlier, thus pushing Henderson down the pecking order.
Jones started all three Tests alongside Maro Itoje, with Henderson’s international team-mate Tadhg Beirne providing cover on the bench for the first two games before being replaced in the matchday 23 by Wales’ Adam Beard for the decider.
Speaking on the new programme, co-hosted by former Ireland internationals Rory Best and Tommy Bowe, Henderson revealed he had a conversation with Gatland surrounding selection after the third Test.
“He told me I had trained really well, played really well and unfortunately it just didn’t work out the way I wanted it to be,” he recalled.
“I wouldn’t be one to go nagging coaches. In my opinion, I go about my business and do what I can on the training pitch.
“I kind of feel among a lot of the staff and squad they felt similarly, but at the end of the day it’s the top dog’s decision and I wasn’t there.”
‘Before you know it you’re trying to beat South Africa at their own game’
In his third tour as head coach, Gatland turned heads with a squad selection that prioritised power and durability as they travelled to take on the reigning world champions.
The Test series itself attracted criticism for its attritional and often slow pace, with neither side playing a particularly exciting brand of rugby.
The Lions enjoyed some big scores in their warm-up games but scored just two tries, from hookers Luke Cowan-Dickie and Ken Owens, in the three contests against South Africa.
“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.”
Henderson, who will not feature in the opening rounds of the United Rugby Championship as he recovers from a thumb injury, is expected to be fully fit in time for Ireland’s autumn Tests, which begin against the USA in Las Vegas on 30 October.
Hear the full interview with Iain Henderson and more on the first episode of The Ulster Rugby Show on BBC Two NI and the iPlayer at 22:00 BST on Thursday 23 September.