Lions head coach Gatland had asked them to prove their worth against the Hurricanes at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium yesterday in order to force their way into the tourists’ 23 for the make-or-break second Test with world champions New Zealand at the same venue.
Yet as they continued to toil into the final minutes and the Geographic Six, chosen to augment the touring party for a couple of awkward looking midweek tour games continued their vigil on the replacements bench, even when Super Rugby’s 2016 champions brought on fresh legs for the denouement of this thrilling encounter, both they and the half-dozen late call-ups must have felt like they had been sold a pup.
If the starting players in the New Zealand capital yesterday had had any hope of forcing their way into the Test squad for Saturday they would have wanted to be removed from the fray after 60 minutes at the latest. Aside from the introduction of Leigh Halfpenny for the injured Robbie Henshaw, Courtney Lawes was the only player called ashore, in the 54th minute, while the others just had to roll up their sleeves and grind on against a Hurricanes side happy to unload their bench and scenting victory against a tiring Lions XV with a coaching staff unwilling to give away cheap caps for fear of being accused of devaluing the famous red jersey.
So hard luck Christian Dacey, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill and Gareth Davies, the four Welshman chosen to warm the bench without reward against both the Chiefs and Hurricanes before being shipped home sometime this week.
At least the two Scottish players got a game, prop Allan Dell covering a Joe Marler sin-binning for 10 minutes against the Chiefs and fly-half Finn Russell making do with three minutes as a Lion during a Head Injury Assessment of Dan Biggar.
And even harder luck to Stander, Henderson and Cole, whose hopes of a Test call-up seem to have been sacrificed in order to not give away cheap caps to the Lions substitutes.
“Those players were called out as cover, that was the case,” Gatland said. “I know there’s a lot been made about that in terms of the decision we made to bring players in for cover and protect as many of the Test 23 as we could. If we hadn’t had those players there tonight we’d have probably had players from the bench on Saturday who would have been exposed.
“We lost Robbie Henshaw (to an injured shoulder) and Dan Biggar went off with an HIA. So potentially we would have been exposing players from the Test 23 earlier on.
“I think so much was made about devaluing the jersey and all those bits and pieces, so we made a decision that we would try to get through the game with as many of the starting XV as we could.”
Lawes’ substitution was a sure sign he had been put in the frame for Test squad selection this Saturday, the lock’s form on tour and his shorter shift giving the Englishman hope he can oust either Goerge Kruis or Alun Wyn Jones from the starting line-up or at the very least earn a place on the bench as Maro Itoje steps in to fill the breach, “I went out and did everything I could. It’s not up to me anymore,” Lawes said.
“I played fairly well today. Looking forward to it if I get a run-out at the weekend.
“I never like getting subbed off. I wanted to stay on, the game was tightening up, it was a tough game. Kruis came on and did a good job.”
That Saracens man Kruis, the first Test lineout leader, came on for Lawes rather than fellow second row Henderson was all the confidence boost Lawes needed. Yet Henderson was doing some career advancement himself, at least until he was yellow carded by French referee Romain Poite for a tip tackle in the 64th minute.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Henderson replied, “I think it would be ideal to be in that Test squad. However, the boys are all massively proud to be here. I don’t think it’s all about that.”
A diplomatic answer indeed, yet Henderson also found himself in the sin bin as a further blot on his copybook. For all the hard yards the Ulster man made carrying ball, even getting over the tryline before being held up and having his try taken away by referee Romain Poite, it was his yellow-card lifting of Hurricanes full back Jordie Barrett above the horizontal and landing him on his shoulder that will linger with the Lions’ selectors, particularly as the sin-binning saw the Hurricanes rally from 31-17 down to draw the game with two converted tries.
“It was definitely an enjoyable game to play in, for the 70 minutes I played, but that yellow was frustrating,” Henderson admitted.
“It was stupid and probably a little bit of mistimed rucking, I would describe it as. It was definitely hard for me sitting there and watching those 10 minutes, and putting the guys in that tough position. However, we came back at the end there and we were trying to put a bit of pressure on there, but that’s the way it goes, isn’t it?”
That’s the way it goes, indeed.
J Barrett; N Milner-Skudder, V Aso, N Laumape, J Savea (C Jane, 69); O Black (W Goosen, 56), T T Tahuriorangi (K Hauiti-Parapara, 69); B May (C Eves, 55), R Riccitelli (L Apisai, 61), J To’omaga-Allen; M Abbott, S Lousi; V Fifita, C Gibbins, B Shields – captain (R Prinsep, 55).
Tahuriorangi 51-61 mins
M Kainga, J Blackwell.
J Nowell; T Seymour, J Joseph, R Henshaw (L Halfpenny, 19), G North; D Biggar (F Russell, 45-47), G Laidlaw; J Marler, R Best - captain, D Cole; I Henderson, C Lawes (G Kruis, 54); J Haskell, J Tipuric, CJ Stander.
K Dacey, A Dell, T Francis, C Hill, G Davies.
Romain Poite (France)