Warren Gatland has given his back row trio a licence to thrill when The British & Irish Lions take on Cell C Sharks at Emirates Airline Park on Wednesday evening.
Tom Curry, Josh Navidi and Sam Simmonds have all been handed their first starts for the tourists in the second game of the 2021 Castle Lager Lions Series in Johannesburg.
While Simmonds made his first appearance off the bench against the Sigma Lions on Saturday, Curry and Navidi will both be making their Lions debuts in the midweek contest.
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And the message from Gatland to his newest loose forward trio was plain and simple – don’t be afraid to express yourselves and play to your own strengths.
“There’s a huge amount of competition in the back row and I spoke to them all last night and just said, ‘Look, you’ve got a licence from me to get your hands on the ball’,” he said.
“I want them to express themselves. I said they are probably not renowned as lineout experts but you have to play to your strengths, and they are strong defenders and great ball carriers.
“It’s a different aspect to look at but it’s exciting and I’m really looking forward to seeing how they go as a trio. If you look at those players they are strong defenders, exciting ball carriers.
“They’ve all got good footwork. Sometimes you get a different balance in a loose forward trio, where you’re picking a lineout specialist, someone plays tighter and maybe hits more rucks.
“These players all have pretty similar attributes, some of them are going to have to mix and match with making sure they do the graft work but the message was ‘play to your strengths’.
“We don’t want to pigeon-hole them, we want to give players the opportunity to play to their strengths – for some that’s getting their hands on the ball and using that ability.
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“Other players are very strong at the breakdowns, very strong from a defensive perspective, tackling, turning the ball over, they just have a licence to go and be positive.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how the back row goes; it’s an exciting mixture and one that we hope will offer something a bit different.”
In addition to Curry and Navidi making their first appearances in the red jersey, Wales lock Adam Beard will make his Lions debut after being called up as a replacement for Alun Wyn Jones.
But Gatland was keen to take the pressure off his three debutants, stressing that the only thing that matters is that they go out and enjoy themselves against the Cell C Sharks.
“With those guys, the message to them is just to play your own game,” he said. “It’s a great honour and incredible excitement for them to play their first game for the Lions.
“For me it’s about not trying to put them under any pressure at all, they have got a lot of things to worry about and they’ll be a bit nervous so just go and enjoy he occasion.
“I’m not even trying to think too much yet about the Test side, just looking at one game at a time and then as we start to get close, from coaching perspective it’s a great place to be in.
“We’ve got so much competition within this squad and players already putting their hand up. The players are working hard off the pitch in terms of knowing their roles, their calls and stuff.
“That’s been absolutely outstanding from their perspective and makes everyone’s job so much easier from the amount of hard work the players have been doing.”
Ireland lock Iain Henderson will captain the Lions for the first time against the Sharks, becoming the third captain in three games by following in the footsteps of Jones and Stuart Hogg.
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Henderson toured with the Lions in 2017 and having also skippered for Ireland and Ulster, Gatland believes the towering lock has all the credentials to perform well in the role.
“He’s experienced, been a previous Lions tourist, captain of Ulster, captained Ireland as well and he just brings a calm approach to it,” added three-time Lions head coach Gatland.
“He’s well aware there are other experienced players in the side and leaders in the side that are going to be there to support him and there were a couple of others we could have looked at.
“I thought Iain was an obvious choice for us given his experience and stature in the game. I spoke to Andy Farrell during the Six Nations and he was full of praise for Iain.
“He talked about his leadership and what he was bringing to the Ireland side, so I thought it was a natural fit for us and a great honour for him as well.”