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In Focus: Centres

Lions Australia Tour 2013

With world class options from all four home nations, Warren Gatland’s task to whittle down multiple centres to just a handful for this year’s British & Irish Lions Tour was undoubtedly one of his biggest.

“You want someone with footwork and the ability to put the ball through the hands, make the right decisions.”

With world class options from all four home nations, Warren Gatland’s task to whittle down multiple centres to just a handful for this year’s British & Irish Lions Tour was undoubtedly one of his biggest.

A host of names have made their case this season but in the end the head coach opted for Jonathan Davies, Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Joseph and Ben Te’o.

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Davies, a 2013 British & Irish Lion, has the experience and knowledge of what it takes to win on a Lions Tour after his excellent displays four years ago in Australia.

Henshaw, Joseph and Te'o meanwhile have become three of the Northern Hemisphere’s finest centres for club and country in the last four years.

“The primary thing is that the communication with the ten, often the centre is eyes and ears of the ten,” said Gatland.

“They help them make the right calls and the right decisions and so that relationship is really important. You are looking for your centres to get you across the advantage line.

“You want someone with footwork and the ability to put the ball through the hands, make the right decisions.”

Click here for the official 41-man Lions squad

ENGLISH CONTRAST

Of the Englishman named in Gatland’s squad, Ben Te’o is perhaps the most intriguing considering he is relatively new to Test match rugby.

The 30-year-old’s hard running and deft hands have made him a big hit with England supporters after making his international debut last year.

“Obviously, the midfield caused some debate,” Gatland said.

"It was a big call taking Ben Te'o, he's been playing at 13 but is a better 12, given the potential weather conditions in New Zealand and the impact he made for England coming off the bench.”

In the 2017 RBS 6 Nations, Te’o was crucial to England retaining their crown with a vital try against France in Round One setting them up for victory.

Bath Rugby’s Jonathan Joseph is equally strong in defence but it is his pace, clever feet and ability with ball in hand that has helped him forge his ever-growing reputation.

Lightening quick and blessed with an ability to score tries from any position on the pitch, he will be a vital source of points for Gatland’s men – having scored 16 tries in 33 Test caps.

Joseph is set for his first Lions Tour after establishing himself as Eddie Jones’ preferred outside centre during England’s incredible two-year period under the Australian.

Like Henshaw, Joseph only established himself as a regular starter in 2015 – but his rise has been rapid, with hat-tricks against Italy and Scotland confirming his status as one of the most dangerous backs in the game.

BIG GAME PLAYERS

Jonathan Davies was one of the stars of the 2013 Tour, as the Lions secured their first victory in Australia since 1989.

The talented Welshman dovetailed beautifully with Jamie Roberts in the final Test, something the pair have done with Wales for years – with Davies more often playing at 13.

The 29-year-old started all three Test matches and showed off his versatility by operating at both inside and outside centre – something Gatland may hope to utilise again this time around.

The Scarlets star is cool under pressure and regularly delivers in the biggest matches, helping Wales secure back-to-back RBS 6 Nations titles in 2012 and 2013.

Davies is one of several players touring for a second time, and in a midfield built up of players who have yet to experience what it is like to be a British & Irish Lion, he could be a vital source of knowledge.

A pivotal figure in Ireland’s double RBS 6 Nations success in 2014 and 2015, Robbie Henshaw has become one of the best inside centres in the world – something he demonstrated in November’s Test win against New Zealand in Chicago.

The 23-year-old was outstanding throughout as the All Blacks’ lost their 18-match unbeaten run.

Henshaw’s versatility is also a plus, with the Leinster star able to play at full-back.

His ability in the air is often under-rated, but he is among the best catchers under a high-ball in the game – demonstrated by his match-winning try against England in the 2015 RBS 6 Nations.

Henshaw was also part of the Connacht side which won the 2015-16 Guinness PRO12, and in a golden summer he was part of the first ever Irish side to beat the Springboks on South African soil.

And he has the rare trait of always turning up on the big occasion, and he is sure to be an integral part of Gatland’s squad moving forwards.

VERSATILITY IS KEY

Owen Farrell may be a specialist fly-half but he is as equally effective in the centres, where he has played for the majority of Eddie Jones’ England tenure.

Arguably the best goalkicker in the game, Farrell is also one of the rugby’s best defensive backs and his partnership with Joseph is the defensive cornerstone of England’s success.

But it is his attacking game which has really improved in the year, with his pass for Elliott Daly’s match-winning try against Wales inch-perfect, demonstrating that he is a real all-rounder.

Farrell's impact on matches is remarkable, and he has only lost one game he’s started since January 2016 – with domestic side Saracens the current Aviva Premiership and European Champions Cup holders.

If Gatland wants to throw New Zealand an unexpected curveball, then he could opt for either of his versatile back-three options, Elliot Daly or Jared Payne, in the centre.

Both have been selected among wingers and full-backs, but domestically they play centre – with Daly in particular shining in recent weeks.

Payne has recovered from injury to make the Tour, and admits he is as surprised as anyone that he will be facing the All Blacks.

"I'm pretty surprised as well. It's not really sunk in just yet. It's great for Ulster to have a few friendly faces on the trip is pretty good,” he said.

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