Match Preview – Lions vs Japan

On Saturday, Murrayfield in Edinburgh becomes the venue furthest north of the equator the British and Irish Lions have played, superseding Cardiff, which hosted a World XV in 1986 and Argentina in 2005.

The Lions, shorn of key players against a Japan side who have not played for 20 months in a match uncertain of Test status, will nevertheless look to make the most of things in Edinburgh (kick-off 3pm).

That the game is going ahead is an achievement after the Lions’ tour of South Africa was in doubt for so long but, with Warren Gatland’s squad set fair to face the world champions in a three-Test series, the real preparation starts this weekend.

Gatland is without players involved in the English Premiership final between Exeter and Harlequins on Saturday and has had little time to work with others who joined the Jersey training camp late after playing for their clubs last weekend.

Such issues are meat and drink to the New Zealand coach, however, as are two late injuries this week (Hamish Watson, Zander Fagerson) that upset his plan to start four Scots in the team in the country’s capital after they have been barely represented in the Lions for so long.

Blending a side in a hurry from limited opportunities is the essence of Lions coaching and Gatland was at pains this week to stress that everyone in the squad will get a start in the early games and be given their chance.

“We are not fixed in our thoughts, we haven’t got any preconceived ideas about the Test side at the moment,” he said. “We are giving everyone an opportunity and want to see who makes a real impression.

“Someone is going to come through that a lot of people might not expect. That’s the exciting part from the coaching aspect.”

Lions, Boks and Japan undercooked?

For once, the Lions won’t be the only team taking the field somewhat undercooked this year. The Springboks have not played since the World Cup final in 2019 and have arranged two tests against Georgia to prepare, live on Sky Sports.

Japan’s last Test was against the Springboks in the World Cup quarter-finals and they have since managed just run-outs against a club side to try to rediscover some of the mojo that made them so exciting in their home tournament.

“We expect a really strong test from Japan,” Gatland said.

“They have already had a warm-up game against the Sunwolves where they probably felt they weren’t at their best but they won the game in the end. They will be a lot stronger as a combination for the game on Saturday.

We're now all settled into Edinburgh 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

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“They are World Cup quarter-finalists so you have to respect what they have achieved in recent years. We go in expecting a tough encounter. We know we will be a little bit rusty.”

Officials are trying to decide if the match will get full international Test status for the Lions, though that will be of little concern to the players involved whose focus will be on making an impression for the main event further down the line.

Home fans too – 16,500 – will also just enjoy the only opportunity they will get to see the 2021 Lions in the flesh, as none will be allowed to travel to South Africa where it still looks unlikely that even home fans will be let into stadiums.

Last time, the Lions played a home Test to launch a series they needed a last-gasp Jonny Wilkinson penalty to snatch a draw with Argentina in Cardiff in 2005 before going on to be demolished on tour by New Zealand.

Liam Williams focused on creating fresh Lions memories

Liam Williams initiated one of the British and Irish Lions’ greatest tries four years ago but the Wales star is now more focused on creating fresh memories by going on the attack against South Africa.

Williams is one of three starters in the team picked for Saturday’s pre-tour showdown with Japan at Murrayfield who were present for the first Test in New Zealand four years ago.

While the tourists ultimately fell to a 30-15 defeat in Auckland, they also engineered one of the most electric moments in their history as Sean O’Brien finished a move that started deep inside their own 22.

“It keeps popping up on Instagram! So I’m: ‘Oh not again! Oh go on then!’,” said Williams, who has played only once since the Six Nations because of a foot problem.

“It all happened so quick. Anthony Watson passes me the ball and I see Kieran Read out of the corner of my eye. It’s just instinct, I guess.

“There’s a bit of space, I thought I’m going to need to go. Step in and then a palm on Aaron Cruden. Ben Te’o’s good block on Sonny Bill Williams.

“Then my legs went a little bit and I had to wait for Jonathan Davies to come up and help. Then the boys were just great to finish it off. Sean O’Brien over the line.

“I have a look at it every now and then but I don’t want to live in the past. I’ve been picked by the Lions again, which is an honour and a privilege.”

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