Iain Henderson must be asking if he'll ever be a Test Lion after today's gut-check
With a series win in Australia and draw in New Zealand, Warren Gatland has a lot of credit in the bank.
Iain Henderson, Bundee Aki, Chris Harris and Josh Adams will all be asking themselves what more they could have done.
The Lions head coach does not always make wildly popular decisions, but he has the trophies in the cabinet to back up many of his calls. He guided Wasps to three Premiership titles and a Heineken Cup before taking over at Wales and leading them to four Six Nations titles, three of which were Grand Slams.
Back in 2013, Gatland dropped Brian O'Driscoll for Jonathan Davies before the Lions; Third Test against Australia. It sent Ireland into melt-down but the Lions beat the Wallabies and, ultimately, Gatland won the day.
Even when he does not get it exactly right - starting Ben Te'o and Peter O'Mahony in the First Test against New Zealand - he is not stubborn enough to stick rigidly to his guns. After naming his team for the First Test against South Africa, earlier today, Gatland commented:
"In my four Tours as a Lions coach, this was by far the hardest Test selection I have been involved in.
"We couldn’t have asked for more from the players so far; they’ve all put their hands up and made picking a starting XV incredibly difficult. In truth, we would have been happy with any number of different combinations across the 23, however, we’re very pleased with the side we’ve settled on."
In his Starting XV to face the South Africans, Gatland's biggest calls are at scrumhalf, in the back row and in his back three.
Ali Price getting into the team ahead of Conor Murray is not too big a shock. Murray was not helped by his team getting outmuscled by South Africa 'A' last week, but Price has been the form 9 on tour, so far, and plays with a nice tempo. His box-kicking is not on the same level as Murray's, but he has been playing at a higher line and putting players through gaps.
Courtney Lawes getting in ahead of Tadhg Beirne shows you that Gatland is fixated on the power of the Springboks pack. Beirne has had an excellent tour, but has to settle for the bench. Gatland wants his blindside to be able to negate the likes of Pieter Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth.
In the back three, Gatland was always going to make a cruel cut, or two, here. Josh Adams has scored eight tries in five games and has played 11, 14 and 15. Louis Rees-Zammit has acquitted himself really well, too, but his kicking from hand and aerial prowess is perhaps not yet at a level of his peers in the Lions squad.
Again, Gatland has gone for size so that sees Duhan van der Merwe starting. The Scotland winger does have five tries to his name while Anthony Watson, on the other wing, was the best back on show in that South Africa 'A' loss.
Interestingly, Iain Henderson was named in a leaked Lions team on Tuesday evening. When the official announcement was made, this morning, the only change was Henderson dropping out of the squad for Liam Williams.
One wonders if the Springboks, who named their team on Tuesday morning, going for a 5:3 bench split [forwards to backs] ultimately saw Gatland do likewise, at the expense of the Ulster captain. Having toured in 2017 but not featured in the Test Series, Henderson will be watching on from the sidelines again this weekend.
As for the centres, Swiss-Army knife Elliot Daly gets the 13 jersey and Robbie Henshaw is asked to step inside a spot to partner him. Daly's versatility means he can cover across the backline AND, crucially, he can kick from distance should the Boks infringe in or around the half-way line.
Bundee Aki and Chris Harris have both earned positive reviews for their outings but neither landed much of a blow against South Africa 'A'.
Harsh as some of the calls have been, you can see Gatland's logic behind each of them. The Springboks will be hard beat, and Gatland believes this is the best matchday 23 to get the job done.
By 7pm on Saturday night, we will know if the big decisions and tough cuts have paid off.
LISTEN TO HOUSE OF RUGBY'S LIONS SERIES: EPISODE 5