Lions need Japan game to dust off some of the cobwebs

Murrayfield meet-up will be first game in six weeks for several Irish players on Gatland’s squad

Tadhg Furlong during the British and Irish Lions squad training session at the  Stade Santander International in Jersey on Tuesday. Photograph: Gary Grimshaw/PA Wire

Tadhg Furlong during the British and Irish Lions squad training session at the Stade Santander International in Jersey on Tuesday. Photograph: Gary Grimshaw/PA Wire

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As Lions head coach for a third successive tour, Warren Gatland knows as well as anyone the difficulties in both unifying a squad of 37 players drawn more liberally than before from four countries, and ensuring that his playing squad are primed for the Test series.

Gatland is generally a master at achieving both, but the difficulties in doing so have been compounded by the uneven way his 37 players finished their domestic seasons. So it was that 26 players (including the addition of Ronan Kelleher as cover at hooker) pitched up in Jersey for their 10-day preparatory training camp last Sunday week, with a further eight linking up this week before the Exeter quartet involved in Saturday’s Premiership final do so in time for Sunday’s charter flight from Edinburgh to Johannesburg.

Out of necessity therefore, the all-Celtic starting team chosen to face Japan this Saturday at Murrayfield (kick-off 3pm, live on Channel 4) had to be drawn from those originally brought into camp, not least as, unlike either of the last two Lions sorties to the southern hemisphere, they need this pre-tour game, some acutely so.

Five of the starting XV played as recently as last Saturday fortnight, and for a couple more this will be their first game in four weeks. But for another half dozen, this Saturday’s game will be their first in six weeks, including Robbie Henshaw, Conor Murray, Tadhg Beirne and Jack Conan, as well as Tadhg Furlong on the bench. For Liam Williams and Rory Sutherland, troubled by foot and shoulder injuries, it will be a first game in three months.

Plenty of cobwebs to be dusted off there.

Chances

These players need this game and, with Gatland reaffirming that all his squad will be given at least one start before the first Test, many may only have one more start before the Tests, or maybe two, and the reduction in tour games from 10 to eight further accentuates the need for players to take what chances come their way.

First impressions count, both good and bad. On the only previous occasion where the Lions played a pre-tour game on UK or Irish soil, they earned a scratchy 25-all draw, courtesy of a late penalty by Jonny Wilkinson, against Argentina in Cardiff in 2003.

Of that starting XV, only three started the 21-3 first Test defeat by the All Blacks a month later, namely Wilkinson (who moved to centre), Shane Byrne and Martin Corry.

When the Lions stopped off in a hot and humid Hong Kong en route to Australia when beating the Barbarians 59-8 in 2013, five of that team were subsequently in the starting XV for the first Test win in Brisbane: Alex Cuthbert, Jonathan Davies, Mike Phillips, Adam Jones and Paul O’Connell three weeks later.

While it was not a pre-tour game, those jet-lagged players picked in the first of 10 matches in New Zealand four years ago against a New Zealand Provincial Barbarians side after driving up to Whangerei drew the shortest of straws. Of the XV in that no-win 13-7 win, only four started the first Test three weeks later.

Viewed in that light, the team for the first Test is likely to be much changed from this week’s selection. Only Robbie Henshaw, Conor Murray and the captain, Alun Wyn Jones, look probable starters in the first Test, albeit Liam Williams, Dan Biggar and Ken Owens will be strong contenders and, as Gatland said on Tuesday, “Someone is going to come through that a lot of people may not expect.” In that context, it looks like a huge opportunity for Bundee Aki, Iain Henderson, Beirne and Conan et al to stake their claims.

Balancing act

In a portent of things to come, only Williams of this team is under 100kg, but then there’s another balancing act, namely coming up with a game plan for the Brave Blossoms’ high-tempo brand of rugby as compared to the uber-physical Springboks, which is, eh, the polar opposite.

“Japan will probably try and play with a little bit more tempo, they won’t probably have the same physical prowess in terms of trying to take you on at set-piece, scrum and lineout and mauling and being very direct like we expect South Africa to be,” admitted Gatland.

“We’ve got that in mind and we want to go out there and play a gameplan against Japan where we feel we can be successful with, but also keeping in mind that we are preparing towards South Africa as well. So there are two things, we are trying to cover off both challenges.”

Noting that Japan, who play Ireland on Saturday week at the Aviva, will have benefited from their preparatory game against the Sunwolves, Gatland added: “They are World Cup quarter-finalists so you have to respect what they have achieved in recent years. We go in expecting a tough encounter. We know we will be a little bit rusty. It’s brilliant that we will have some crowd [16,500)]there in Edinburgh.”

BRITISH & IRISH LIONS vs JAPAN
Vodafone Lions 1888 Cup
Saturday June 26th
BT Murrayfield Stadium
Kick-off: 3pm

15. Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales) #833
14. Josh Adams (Cardiff Rugby, Wales)
13. Robbie Henshaw (Leinster Rugby, Ireland) #824
12. Bundee Aki (Connacht Rugby, Ireland)
11. Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh Rugby, Scotland)
10. Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints, Wales) #821
9. Conor Murray (Munster Rugby, Ireland) #790
1. Rory Sutherland (Edinburgh Rugby, Scotland)
2. Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales) #829
3. Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland)
4. Iain Henderson (Ulster Rugby, Ireland) #808
5. Alun Wyn Jones - Captain (Ospreys, Wales) #761
6. Tadhg Beirne (Munster Rugby, Ireland)
7. Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby, Scotland)
8. Jack Conan (Leinster Rugby, Ireland)

Replacements:
16.
Jamie George (Saracens, England) #819
17. Wyn Jones (Scarlets, Wales)
18. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster Rugby, Ireland) #818
19. Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, England) #826
20. Taulupe Faletau (Bath Rugby, Wales) #779
21. Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland)
22. Owen Farrell (Saracens, England) #780
23. Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, England) #816
 

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