It was a smile on Warren Gatland’s face as his third British and Irish Lions tour as Head Coach began in earnest. After months of little certainty, the trademark early naming of a matchday 23 was a semblance of normality for which Gatland was rather welcome, excitement in the eyes as he explained his first selection of the summer.
“It’s come around pretty quickly in the end,” said Gatland from the Lions’ pre-tour training base in Jersey. “Now the squad is together, it is kind of strange. Even though we are in our bubble it feels pretty familiar to what you normally do.”
A certain familiarity is to be treasured for this will be an odd British and Irish Lions summer. The large travelling party have enjoyed two weeks of Channel Island sunshine, storms and a slightly less stringent bubble, but worrying reports from Gauteng about a worsening Coronavirus situation in the province are cause for concern; the tour that very nearly didn’t tour may face yet more choppy waters.
The Lions head for South Africa next week, but their summer business begins with a unique opener to preface what is now a unique tour. This will be the time the Lions have encountered Japan, and the first Lions game in Scotland, while the healthy collection of home spectators permitted at Murrayfield will be the sole spectators on an itinerary otherwise behind closed doors.
These opening fixtures can be tricky affairs, coming before a squad has opportunity to fully gel. On the last tour, a Lions squad not long in New Zealand found a wet Whangarei and a Provincial Barbarians side incredibly tough foes. Perhaps of greater cause for reflection will be the last time the British and Irish Lions played in one of its constituent countries, a draw with a largely second-string Argentinian Cardiff in 2005. It was a game the Lions perhaps should have lost, and a precursor to a tough tour. Gatland will be keen to avoid a repeat.
In Japan, they confront World Cup quarter-finalists and a side capable of enlivening the occasion, though one that has largely been forced dormant since that home tournament. A recent out-of-rhythm warm-up against the Sunwolves showed that the Lions will not be the only side striving for cohesion.
Jamie Joseph has named a similar starting fifteen to the one so successful at the World Cup. Based on previous evidence, it is one with limited structural or stylistic attacking similarities to the Springboks, the Lions preparing for a succession of demolition derbies with a go at MotoGP.
Japan’s defence will not be as diametrically opposed to what is to come, however, and their ability to play with tempo should test the legs and lungs of a group at the end of a long season. Certainly, the chance to play another international side of genuine quality should serve as a useful indicator on how Gatland’s selection have begun to embed, even if he and his staff’s focus remains partly on what is to come.
“We want to go out there and play the gameplan against Japan that we feel we can be successful with but keeping in mind that we are working towards South Africa as well.
“We have spoken about starting the tour on the right foot. It is an important job for the whole squad that we go out and give a good performance.”
Just four of those who started the opener four years ago ended up starting the first Test against New Zealand, though one would suggest Gatland’s opening gambit this time may bear greater resemblance to the chosen 15 who run out in Cape Town on 24 July.
The pairing at nine and ten, Conor Murray and Dan Biggar, could remain in situ, and Tadhg Beirne’s place on the blindside is an indicator of where the Irishman’s likely Test home is. Compatriots Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw are given first crack in midfield, with the eventual Test centre combination particularly tough to decipher.
There were due to be five Scots allowed the unique opportunity to play in front of a home crowd in Lions red, but Hamish Watson’s concussion and Zander Fagerson back spasms have forced Gatland into two changes. That reduces the number set to pull on a Lions jersey for the first time to eight.
Another Scot who might have figured, Finn Russell, has been given time to heal a niggly ankle having joined camp on Monday after Racing 92’s Top 14 exit. That means a place for fellow late arrival Owen Farrell, fresh from leading Saracens back into the Premiership, among the substitutes, alongside clubmate Jamie George, whose inclusion is necessitated by the presence of just two hookers officially named available, with the insulation Ronan Kelleher provided now back in summer eaves storage.
Gatland stressed on Tuesday the problems that not having a full squad have caused – plenty are still getting up to speed. Exeter’s supplied quartet must still complete their pursuit of another Premiership crown against Harlequins at Twickenham, a game which, in a reminder of rugby’s often perplexing scheduling, also comes on Saturday evening.
“We are a little bit hampered at the moment because we haven’t got the full squad,” admitted Gatland, though the New Zealander was also keen to emphasise the opportunities this game presents.
“We haven’t got any pre-conceived ideas about the Test side at the moment. We want to see who puts their hand up and makes a real impression. It’ll be interesting to see how those combinations go. Someone is going to come through that a lot of people might not expect.”
While it has not yet been decided whether this game will carry Test status, the Lions have prepared as such, with defence coach Steve Tandy insistent this is to be more than just a “curtain-raiser”. With the plan to give every member of the squad a starting shirt in the more exploratory opening three fixtures, those involved at Murrayfield will get a first, vital chance to push for their place.
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