The long wait is over, strap yourselves in and get set. Despite the controversy, the restrictions of COVID-19, the lack of crowds and so much more – this Lions tour surely must be one of the most eagerly anticipated in years. The excitement is building and this Saturday sees the slow start of a return to normal service in terms of International Rugby. Crowds will be at the Rugby Championship which immediately follows the Lions tour, as well as at France’s tour of Australia, and Canada and the USA’s tour of the UK. In short, rugby is back and we have a vintage summer to look forward to!
Despite the primary focus of the Lions tour being on the three Tests with South Africa next month, this warmup game against Japan is one that holds a great deal of interest for fans of International Test rugby. While the Lions will be the first Test opponents that South Africa will face since their World Cup triumph, they will also be the first Test Japan will have played since the World Cup. Like South Africa, Japan have also been in international isolation since the global showdown as a result of COVID. They took the world by storm at the World Cup, by proving that Japanese rugby has improved by leaps and bounds in the last twenty years. Their quarter-final effort against South Africa was impressive, and this is clearly a side that has arrived with strong Tier 1 aspirations.
Consequently Saturday’s match holds plenty of interest, as Lions Coach Warren Gatland puts together a strong side that should be able to handle a very quick and nimble Japanese offering. Here’s a couple of points that got us talking about what to look for this weekend.
So where are the Brave Blossoms after the most successful World Cup in their history?
Japan had a fairytale World Cup that sadly ended at the knockout stages as they were summarily dismissed by the ultimate Champions and the Lions opponents this summer – South Africa. However, they played some absolutely exquisite rugby in the process and captured the world’s imagination. It put Japanese players on the map, and got the talent scouts in the top leagues in Europe genuinely interested. The big question is now after almost two years, has that incredible momentum of the World Cup come to a grinding halt? They can ask for no better examination than by a side representing some of the best players in the Northern Hemisphere. Club rugby has flourished in Japan since the World Cup and with some key Japanese players now plying their trade in Europe, there is every reason to believe that we are in for a competitive showing at Murrayfield by the Brave Blossoms. It may be too stern an initial Test for Japan, but will set them up admirably for their encounter with Ireland a week later. Either way it will be great to see one of the most inspirational sides of the last World Cup welcomed back to the fold of International Test Rugby.
Gatland picks a Northern Hemisphere fantasy XV of note!
Wow is all we can say. We’d fancy this lot against the best in the world and have a hunch that the starting lineup for the three Springbok Tests isn’t going to look too different, with possible tweaks in the second and back rows and possibly at fullback. In short, expect to see these 23 individuals dominate the latter stages of the Lions Tour. Throw in Itoje and the Exeter pair of Stuart Hogg and Sam Simmonds, who will be doing duty in the English Premiership final this weekend, and you have a truly fearsome unit – powerful, fast and full of creativity. Gatland has picked a physical but highly mobile squad to counteract the kind of silky opportunistic running much favored by the Japanese. There’s been much speculation about the possibility of “Warrenball” this tour, given that its chief proponent is running the show. However, Gatland hates the term and to give one of the most successful Coaches in this era of Test Rugby credit, one that hasn’t really reflected the play style of his charges in the last couple of years. It may have given Wales an initial platform when he first took charge but the Gatland style has evolved dramatically in the last five years. His ability to enable his teams to adapt quickly to their opponents is becoming legendary, and we’d hardly say that it’s a boring brand. Barring coaching his native All Blacks, a clean sweep of South Africa would be the crowning achievement on a career that is rapidly elevating him to a position where he will be able to sit with the Coaching gods.
Two feisty but very mobile opponents
While Amanaki Mafi may be a slightly colorful character at times who can get on the wrong side of the referee and even his teammates, there is no denying the bruising Japanese back rower has an eye for the kind of opportunities that make headlines for number 8s. Ireland and the Lions Jack Conan is outstanding at seizing such moments with both hands and has done so time and again for the Men in Green to devastating effect. Both are bruising ball carriers, solid defensively but blindingly quick off loose ball, and with a head of steam behind them hard to bring down. Talupe Faletau may be Lions Coach Warren Gatland’s first choice at number 8, but Conan will relish the opportunity to put his talents on display in front of his new boss.
Superman meets Captain Fantastic
It was supposed to be Scotland’s Hamish Watson, out with a minor injury, but Justin Tipuric or “Superman” has we call him here at the Lineout will rise admirably to the occasion on Saturday as he meets one of Test Rugby’s most talismanic leaders Japan’s back rower and Captain Michael Leitch. A national hero in Japan Leitch has been at the forefront of really putting Japan on the map in the last ten years. A veteran of three World Cups, he shows no sign of slowing down at the tender age of 33. He may not be the most gifted player on the planet but his workrate is very much in the same vein as the mighty Tipuric who we’d have to argue is amongst the five best International Test sevens in the world. Tipuric may be the fitter and more inventive player but Leitch will endeavour to stifle all of those qualities and probably do a fairly admirable job of it, while creating some opportunities of his own. In short there is going to be a lot of grit on display here, and while that Lions back row may simply prove too much for Leitch and his colleagues it won’t be for the want of trying.
He may be fast but can he get past the Lions Duhan van der Merwe?
Japan’s Kotaro Matsushima has been one of the stars of the last two World Cups. The winger’s dancing feet have been so impressive that he has been snapped up by French Top 14 side Clermont and is clearly making his presence felt in Europe. His weaving runs are a trademark of the exciting free flowing rugby that caused all of us neutrals to embrace Japan as our favourite underdog team in the last World Cup. He’ll need those dancing feet though to get past the hulking menace of the Lions Duhan van der Merwe. Despite some brave efforts Matsushima is unlikely to be able to match up to the Scottish Springbok import’s physicality and once the Lion is up to speed with ball in hand the Japanese winger will need to call in support to try and bring him down. If his colleagues can keep the ball away from van der Merwe and Matsushima can keep away from the Lion prowling the touchlines then we could see a very exciting clash of playing styles. It may be a mismatch on paper but one that could provide some of the most exciting moments of the match.
It’s hard to see anything other than an outright win for the Lions despite a solid challenge from Japan at Murrayfield. The pedigree of the Lions matchday 23 is so high and Japan’s game time since the last World Cup so low, that we have trouble seeing an upset here. The Lions may be going through that initial bonding process and figuring out how to play the kind of game that the Coaching staff have devised for them, but the star studded calibre of Saturday’s lineup and experience it brings leaves the end result in little doubt. Japan are a good side and they could well cause Ireland some grief a week later if they have a strong showing on Saturday, but facing up against a collection of the Northern Hemisphere’s very best as your first taste of International Rugby in almost two years is a tall order. Gatland will be keen to lay down a marker to the Springboks of their intent, without showing his hand too much at this early stage. Either way it’s a contest we won’t want to miss and a glorious foretaste of a summer that could well be one for the ages.
In case you’ve forgotten just how magical Japan were at the last World Cup feast your eyes on this. Enjoy!