Robbie Henshaw has a plan for Sonny Bill Williams
Ireland centre Henshaw has branded Williams his most talented opponent ahead of the Lions’ showdown with Auckland Blues this morning.
The Leinster battering ram admitted Williams’ star power commands attention, but vowed the Lions will not be so wrapped up in the All Blacks midfielder as to lose focus elsewhere.
Williams has taken turns as a champion in rugby league and boxing as well as gracing the All Blacks’ consecutive World Cup triumphs.
Henshaw looked up to the code-crossing celebrity in his youth but knows he now faces a peer, not an idol.
Asked if he had ever seen anyone as talented as Williams, Henshaw replied: “I really haven’t.
I’m looking forward to playing against him and having a go
Lions star Robbie Henshaw
“I was a big fan of his when I was a kid, whether that was performing in league or for the All Blacks. To be coming up against him is pretty surreal.
“I’m looking forward to playing against him and having a go. We definitely tweak our defensive technique for someone like that – just not too much.”
Williams’ juggernaut running bisects the best of defences, while his offloading capabilities often turn half-chances into stunning scores.
The Lions know they must not only match his midfield steel but also stymie his options for shifting the ball out of the tackle.
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Sonny Bill Williams won the World Cup with New Zealand in 2015
Henshaw admitted that means offering special treatment for the 31-year-old – but not to the point of forgetting the Blues’ other stellar backline talents.
He will at least have regular Ireland centre partner Jared Payne for company in midfield, as boss Warren Gatland bids to accelerate the Lions’ battle to build attacking structure.
“If he’s a one-out runner and there’s no one with him, obviously I’ll look to come in and make a double hit on him and try and stop his offload threat, but you have to look at the guys who are flooding through as well,” said Henshaw.
“Often as a part of defending you have to go a double man tackle on him, one high and one low, and try and stop the offloads around it.
“It’s definitely going to be a tough challenge but we have the right man in place to execute a good defensive system.
British & Irish Lions squad for 2017 New Zealand tour Mon, May 22, 2017
Express Sport runs through the confirmed Lions squad for the 2017 tour to New Zealand
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Express Sport runs through the 37-man Lions squad ahead of the New Zealand tour
“They’re a quality outfit and we know they can pull something out of nothing. They’re highly skilled players across the board.”
Henshaw and Payne were the midfield pairing when Ireland so famously beat the All Blacks in Chicago last November.
Jack McGrath and CJ Stander also start today having celebrated that momentous win, while Rory Best, captain that famous day, waits on the bench.
But if any of them are feeling like they have the inside track, either on the All Blacks or New Zealand rugby in general, one man who had to swallow his pride that day has issued a note of caution.
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Charlie Faumuina, who will go head-to-head at scrum time with McGrath once again, reckons the All Blacks are an even meaner animal thanks to that defeat.
“There were probably things we took for granted, and they got shown up in that game,” said Faumuina. “We’ve learned from that, we’ve sharpened up.
“As an All Black you never want to lose any game, but if it happens the vital thing is to move on quickly, take the learnings and then go and improve again.
“They can take confidence from Ireland’s win but this is a different team. I can’t really see it having too much impact for them really.”