Warren Gatland announced his first British and Irish Lions XV for the year this week to face Japan, with Ireland’s pairing of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw partnering in the centres.
While many have felt for a long time that Henshaw has been a nailed-on player for Gatland’s test sides, the inclusion of Aki even in the touring squad was surprising to many.
For five-time capped Lion Keith Wood, although Aki may have been an outside choice for the tour, he has the capacity and the opportunity to put together a starting Lions test series akin to another Irishman, Rob Henderson.
Speaking on Wednesday’s OTB AM, Wood suggested that there can be little to take away from Gatland’s first starting XV this week.
“I think Gatland has guys that he knows and likes, and he will want to play them,” Wood said. “I think Henshaw is one of those.
“I think Aki was a surprise in getting selected; I think it is a great opportunity to go and do it.
“I don’t read anything into the first three games actually. You can read into the performance of the players that come out of it, as opposed to the selection before it.”
Gatland’s reputational ‘Warrenball’ style of play lends itself well to players of the same type as Aki, who enjoy dominating the collision, and seldom create a bit of spark or function as a playmaker.
Wood, though, believes that if all players were fit and in form, then Aki would likely have lost his place to Manu Tuilagi.
“I think we were surprised that he got picked, but when you look at it, it makes sense,” Wood said.
“In terms of Gatland’s style, he likes to have big carrying centres, he likes to have a bit of spark too.
“He could fit in, but I think if you could wind the clock back, he would have been happier to have Manu Tuilagi fitter and playing sooner; but Aki gets the chance on it.”
Can Aki secure the permanent 12 jersey?
For Wood, the circumstances of Aki’s inclusion into not only the touring squad, but the Lions XV for Japan, are not dissimilar to the inclusion of Rob Henderson in 2001.
Henderson was selected for the tour, but was the furthest player expected to make a test start against Australia.
However, after several stellar performances in the tour matches, Henderson grabbed his opportunity to start the first test alongside Brian O’Driscoll, and never gave up the jersey for the remainder of the tour.
“I would go back to 2001, which is a long time back, and Rob Henderson not having an inkling of a chance, until he got the chance,” Wood said.
“Then he didn’t give it up. He came very late to being a runner for that test team, but he played in the three tests, and he played fantastically well.”
Wood believes that, if Aki can emulate his predecessor in the build-up to the first test against South Africa, then he may be the nailed-on starter against the Springboks, and potentially for Ireland after the Lions series ends.
“It depends on how we are going to play,” Wood said. “If you look at how Joe Schmidt wanted his centres to play, he played Aki at different times, but for the most part he wanted very consistent play that happened time after time with very little risk taken.
“Aki did that for him for a while. When you see [Andy] Farrell come in, he wants a little bit more handling required. It all depends entirely on the coach and what the coach wants.
“The Lions is very different, it takes into consideration your form to get you onto the plane, provided that that fits into the way that he thinks the Lions are going to play.
“If Aki does a particularly good job, we know he can play in that style, is that something that we can incorporate into an Irish backline? That becomes the question.”