British and Irish Lions v Japan
Murrayfield, today, 3pm Live on Channel 4
Four years on from that bizarre endgame in Auckland which completed the drawn Test series in New Zealand, the Lions are back. Akin to the only other pre-tour match on home soil, the ominously painful draw with Argentina in 2005, this could be a banana skin but individually and collectively these Lions need a game.
This is all the truer given the potentially damaging reduction in tour games from 10 to eight, which could make for a very drawn out Test series in a restrictive bio-secure bubble. There’s also the management’s intention to afford every member of the 37-man squad at least one start in the opening three games.
Opportunity knocks then for today's all-Celtic starting XV, including all seven of the Irish players remaining in the full squad. Players shouldn't lose their chance of a Test spot, but their chances can be put on the back foot on opening day, as Iain Henderson and even Johnny Sexton can testify from the short straw that was the opening game against a New Zealand Provincial Barbarians side in Whangerei four years ago, not to mention the bulk of those involved in that aforementioned draw with the Pumas.
For the nine survivors from the New Zealand trek, they may have some credit in the bank, but perhaps less so the six debutants. So this represents a particularly big chance for three of them, Bundee Aki, Tadhg Beirne and especially Jack Conan, given Taulupe Faletau and Sam Simmonds are likely to have their chance in the opening two tour games.
For sure Japan ought to be even rustier, with just one warm-up game against the Sunwolves since the 2019 World Cup. Against that, the World Cup showcased how Jamie Joseph, Tony Brown and co can effectively use time in camp.
They will also have continuity, given 10 of today's starting XV lined up for the quarter-final against South Africa and another three were replacements that day. As an aside, they should be even better against Ireland in a week's time.
Although their presence today might revive uncomfortable memories for some, it will be good to see the Brave Blossoms play with their refreshing, unique brand of rugby – the way Amanaki Mafi, Michael Leitch et al charge on to the ball and then seem to almost accelerate again into contact, the rapid-fire recycling at ruck time which follows, the wicked short kicking game, the creative spark in midfield of Ryoto Nakaruma and Timothy Lafaele, and the X factor of Kotaro Matsushima.
If Japan scale anything like the heights they reached when beating Ireland and Scotland in the pool stages of the World Cup, their high-tempo brand of rugby has the capacity to trouble the Lions, and no harm. That is far more preferable to an uninformative romp.
While it will be an altogether different challenge from the one which the Springboks will provide, the Lions need to come through it impressively and not be citing too many excuses afterwards.
Emulating comparatively better prepared club sides is notoriously difficult for international teams, even more so when pooling the pick of four countries together. So, while it mightn’t be the most fluid, this team has had two weeks in camp with Warren Gatland and his coaching ticket.
As Alun Wyn Jones put it yesterday: “There are going to be changes in the first three games, people are going to have opportunities, but irrespective of who takes the field in those first three games you want to get off to a good start and build momentum.”
The forecast looks decent, and even after the longest and most trying of years, Euro 2020 has demonstrated the reviving effects of good weather, big crowds, good officiating, and swift and effective use of technology. Hopefully it will catch on.
In some respects, it’s a pity that the Scottish contingent has been halved from four to two players. Even so, in continuing the Lions’ reconnection with Scottish rugby, an attendance of 16,500 should be a significant boost given many of these players haven’t played in front of such a crowd in about 16 months.
British and Irish Lions: Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales); Josh Adams (Cardiff Rugby, Wales), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster Rugby, Ireland), Bundee Aki (Connacht Rugby, Ireland), Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh Rugby, Scotland); Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints, Wales), Conor Murray (Munster Rugby, Ireland); Rory Sutherland (Edinburgh Rugby, Scotland), Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster Rugby, Ireland),; Iain Henderson (Ulster Rugby, Ireland), Alun Wyn Jones - Captain (Ospreys, Wales); Tadhg Beirne (Munster Rugby, Ireland), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys, Wales), Jack Conan (Leinster Rugby, Ireland).
Replacements: Jamie George (Saracens, England), Wyn Jones (Scarlets, Wales), Kyle Sinckler (Bristol Bears, England), Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, England), Taulupe Faletau (Bath Rugby, Wales), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland), Owen Farrell (Saracens, England), Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, England).
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 (captain), Lappies Labuschagné, Amanaki Mafi. Replacements: Kosuke Horikoshi, Craig Millar, Asaeli Ai Valu, Jack Cornelson, Kazuki Himeno, Tevita Tatafu, Naoto Saito, Rikiya Matsuda.
Referee: Pascal Gaüzère
Assistant referees: Romain Poite, Pierre Brousset
TMO: Eric Gauzins
Forecast: Lions to win