The British & Irish Lions beat Japan 28 - 10 at Murrayfield ahead of their departure to South Africa today for their 2021 tour. Whilst it was the sides first game together, all in all they passed the first test and got the job done. They recorded a comprehensive win and young squad members would have taken confidence out of their first outing in the famous read jersey.
The Lions came out firing in the first half, racking up points through both debutant wingers, Duhan van der Merwe and Josh Adams out wide. The side looked well settled and one would have been hard pressed to say they were a team playing in only their first game together. Warren Gatland thus got his selections right for the first test as he stuck to players that have experience playing together and who he has previously worked with for the most part.
Disaster struck in the 7th minute however, as Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones was taken from the field due to a dislocated shoulder, a major blow for the side as he is the most capped international player of all time. Courtney Lawes entered the fray earlier than expected as a result, however the English lock set about getting the job done and was sadly denied a try as it was ruled he knocked the ball on, on the line.
The Lions suffered a further injury blow to flanker Justin Tipuric and unfortunately both him and Jones, now join prop Andrew Porter as players no longer joining the side on their tour to South Africa. Whilst personnel replacements have yet to be announced, Connor Murray has been named captain of the side and steps into the massive boots of Jones. Murray has ample experience however as this is his 3rd consecutive Lions tour.
The second half was a far different affair however as the Lions began to look disjointed as their replacements took to the field. Whilst not uncommon for teams to take their foot off the pedal once establishing a comprehensive lead, players looking to impress Gatland need to use every opportunity they have at this point. After not conceding a point in the first half, the Lions let slip 10 points in the second as Japan built some momentum through some crunching Wimpie van der Walt tackles.
Whilst the Lions got the job done against Japan they still have a lot of work to do before they face the Springboks for the first time on 24 July. Up next they face the Emirates Lions on Saturday and will get their first taste of the altitude they will face in most of their tour games.
Stand out performers from our perspective were Dan Biggar who put on a solid kicking performance in addition to showing great composure under pressure. Liam Williams at full back laid down a solid marker for the 15 jersey. It seems as if the players hands are made of glue as he made a number of catches from his boot laces and was just as solid under the high ball. Bundee Aki was another who stood out, and he needed to do so as he is competing with England captain Owen Farrell for that 12 jersey.
In the forwards as always Tadhg Furlong was a menace in open play and continues to be at the forefront of what a modern day front rower should be. Tadhg Beirne also put in a solid display on the flank, combining will with Jack Conan. Courtney Lawes recently returned from injury and was thrust into the test early, he however showed his immense class as he set about getting the job done. With a few more games to get 100%, he will prove a difficult customer for the Springboks to handle for sure.
The Lions will need to focus heavily on their set pieces as Steven Kitshoff and co lie in wait for them. Whilst in the lineout they have not selected any out and out specialists, Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje are likely to be the front runners in this department now that Jones is no longer available. A possible call up for Richie Gray is on the cards too and this could bolster the now depleted pack.
Warren Gatland will be hoping his side come through the rest of their games unscathed as he can ill afford to lose more experience and power in his squad. He will surely also be focusing heavily on physicality as the soft moments his side showed at times against Japan, will not go unpunished when they come up against the Green and Gold.