Iain Henderson paid tribute to his teammates for digging deep after The British & Irish Lions overcame a disrupted build-up to continue their perfect start to the 2021 Tour.
Both Josh Adams and Duhan van der Merwe scored hat-tricks as the tourists ran in eight tries to defeat Cell C Sharks 54-7 in their second match on South African soil.
Before the game, Warren Gatland had been forced to make eight changes to his matchday squad after a Lions player and management team member tested positive for coronavirus.
Clinical Lions romp to eight-try victory over Sharks
But despite the backline being depleted because of player isolations, the Lions delivered another impressive display in Johannesburg – and Henderson was proud of his side’s attitude.
“I chatted about the other day about how happy and lucky I was to lead these group of guys out to play and the way they carried themselves was fantastic,” said the first-time captain.
“I can’t reiterate how happy I am to have been able to do it and how proud I am of them. There were a long list of excuses we could have used for each other.
“We could have backed out of tackles, dropped our heads a bit but the guys just didn’t. They dug in for each other to make sure that we kept what we want to do for this Tour on track.
“It was a very difficult day and there were a lot of guys who didn’t carry out their usual matchday routines, there are so many reasons apart from the obvious ones that guys could have turned to.
“But they didn’t and I can’t reiterate enough how proud I am of them. There were so many different variables and you’re sitting on the edge of your bed waiting to find out.
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“We were told to prepare as if the game was going ahead and as easy as that is to say, it’s not easy to do and you’re waiting to go and at 6pm the guys weren’t 100 percent sure.
“We’d usually have a walkthrough, share a couple of meals together, we’d usually have a very different day but for the guys to pitch up the way they did was great.”
Liam Williams, Anthony Watson, Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies, Tadhg Beirne, Conor Murray, Stuart Hogg and Chris Harris were all withdrawn from the matchday 23 before kick-off.
Yet the sweeping changes to the team did not stop the Lions from racing into 26-0 half-time lead thanks to a Van der Merwe brace and tries from Adams and Bundee Aki.
Louis Rees-Zammit also crossed after the interval before Van der Merwe and Adams wrapped up their hat-tricks to leave Henderson satisfied with another emphatic result.
“I think the guys have been excellent preparing for the games and carrying out their roles. There have been two very difficult games, even if the scoreboard didn’t show it,” Henderson said.
“Guys are getting used to playing at altitude, trying to catch their breath, trying to put their hand up for that Test spot but at the same time being as good a team player as possible.
“It’s been great to see and I think we’re challenging Gats [Warren Gatland] and giving him more headaches in terms of selection which is good for us and good for him.
“The guys who managed to get released from their hotels are probably the lucky ones, the ones back at the hotel I’m sure are devastated as they were excited about playing or being involved.
“It’s the nature of the beast we’ve been dealing with for the last 18 months or whatever as games have been called off for club and country, by this stage players are getting used to it.”
Henderson previously toured with the Lions in 2017 but did not make a Test appearance, instead wearing the famous red jersey on six occasions as he became a regular in the midweek side.
The Ireland and Ulster lock feels he has grown a lot as a leader since then and while he hopes to earn a Test spot this time around, he is determined to make the most of the experience.
“For a lot of the players here, they won’t get Test caps so it’s about enjoying the whole experience and the guys are getting up for these games as much as they would for Test caps,” he added.
“They have been enjoying the experience and taking the opportunity to do that. We want to ensure we have as good a time as possible both on and off the field.
“Everyone is trying to put their hand up for a position and the more headaches that Gats gets the better and I think we’ve turned out to be an incredibly tight bunch of lads.
“It’s great to see the team bonds thriving in this squad and I think we’re seeing that on the pitch. Hopefully we’ll continue to see that for the rest of the Tour as well.
“I feel I’m more mature than I was in 2017, a bit more calm and able to organise myself around my training week a bit better compared to when I look back to where I was then.
“I probably hadn’t had a huge amount of experience in holding leadership roles in teams and that’s definitely helped me over the last few seasons so maturity is the biggest change.”