Plenty of motivation for Irish and Scottish players as Lions face Japan

Murray one of seven-strong Irish contingent with painful memories of World Cup

The mere sight of the Japanese team at Murrayfield tomorrow (kick-off 3pm) for the British & Irish Lions pre-tour warm-up game is entitled to send a shiver down the spine of the Irish and Scottish contingent given the acutely painful memory of pool defeats by the hosts at the 2019 World Cup.

Four of the seven-strong Irish contingent in the Lions starting line-up played in the 19-12 defeat in the Shizuoka Stadium, namely Conor Murray, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong and Tadhg Beirne, while Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Jack Conan, whose World Cup was about to end, were injured and forced to watch from the stands.

"The coaches have put a lot of analysis together on what not to do against Japan and the Irish and Scottish lads have featured a little bit in it," confirmed Conor Murray yesterday on the eve of becoming just the 33rd player to embark on a third Lions tour.

“It was a tough lesson out there in the World Cup. They’re a quality side and they’re really, really fit, they play at a really quick pace and are not to be taken lightly.

“Yeah, we’ve chatted about it, especially the Scottish and Irish guys. We have war stories to share, that’s part of the motivation. I know it’s Lions, it’s completely different, but it would be nice to go out and perform well against a really good Japanese side you probably don’t have the best memories from.”

The Japanese match-day squad selected by Jamie Joseph features 14 players who featured in the '23' against Ireland and 13 who played against Scotland. The 22-year-old Siosaia Fifita will make his debut on the left wing, with three more uncapped players on the bench.

Among the familiar faces are Ryohei Yamanaka, fullback against Ireland, Clermont flyer Kotaro Matsushima, who scored five tries at the World Cup, the inventive midfield of Ryoto Nakarama and Timothy Lafaele, outhalf Yu Tamura, props Keita Inagaki and Jiwon Koo, locks Wimpie van der Walt and James Moore, and the back-row of captain Michael Leitch, Lappies Labuschagné and Amanaki Mafi.

Backing up the latter trio is Kazuki Himeno, after his involvement in the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final.

The Scottish head coach and Lions' assistant coach, Gregor Townsend, cited Japan's "unique brand of rugby", containing "short passes, quick rucks, move the ball from everywhere and little short kicks. I think we would all have loved the second shot at Japan in 2019, from Ireland and Scotland, so these players are getting that chance now".

The Japanese-based players have, admittedly, played only one warm-up game since the World Cup, although for ten of the Lions’ starting XV this will be their first game in six weeks or more.

Test players

“We’re going to be rusty anyway, aren’t we?” reasoned Townsend. “It’s the first time the team’s come together and as much as we’ve made sessions game-realistic you’re still not going to instinctively know that that player likes to step off his left foot or will suddenly give you an offload. So you’ve got to learn over the next six weeks.

But also citing Alun Wyn Jones’s ability to return from a six-week absence and be man of the match, Townsend added: “These are Test players that are Test players for a reason. They’ve been able to deliver at the highest level. The way they’re training is high quality.”

“You could argue that freshness – having not played as much over the few weeks given that it’s been a long and challenging season – may help them but who knows? But given that they’re going to be playing with new team-mates, there’s going to be some errors, we know that.”

The presence of 16,500 supporters should be quite a lift after ten months of playing in empty stadia.

“I can’t wait, I love Murrayfield,” said Murray.

“My grandmother, God rest her, she loved the Scottish national anthem so any time I was lucky enough to play in Murrayfield, you’d close your eyes and listen to it, it’s one of the most special anthems you can listen to especially when they cut the bagpipes and crowd take it over.

“My family love going there, and a few of them are lucky enough to travel over this weekend, and the chance to play in front of a crowd, it will be the first time for a lot of us in well over a year, so the buzz is huge.”

As is custom on Lions tours, one player was nominated from each of the four countries to choose a song for the tour. Zander Fagerson picked Loch Lomond, Wyn Jones opted for Calon Lân, You’ll Never Walk Alone was Courtney Lawes’ contribution, and Jack Conan went with The Wild Rover, which has gone down well.

In singing practice, Murray stands close to Tadhg Beirne, “he fancies himself as a bit of a singer” and Tadhg Furlong who, by comparison, is “tone deaf”. As for Conan singing The Wild Rover?

“I wouldn’t say sang. He attempted to sing it but we are getting there.”

JAPAN: Ryohei Yamanaka; Kotaro Matsushima, Timothy Lafaele, Ryoto Nakamura, Siosaia Fifita; Yu Tamura, Kaito Shigeno; Keita Inagaki, Atsushi Sakate, Jiwon Koo; Wimpie van der Walt, James Moore; Michael Leitch (capt), Lappies Labuschagné, Amanaki Mafi.

Replacements: Kosuke Horikoshi, Craig Millar, Asaeli Ai Valu, Jack Cornelson, Kazuki Himeno, Tevita Tatafu, Naoto Saito, Rikiya Matsuda.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times