THE BRITISH & IRISH LIONS V JAPAN
A hat-trick of tries from debutants secured a 28-10 victory for The British & Irish Lions over Japan at BT Murrayfield in The Vodafone Lions 1888 Cup.
Josh Adams scored the opening try on his Lions bow to kick-start the 2021 Tour in style after Warren Gatland’s men weathered an early storm from the Brave Blossoms.
Duhan van der Merwe joined the try-scoring debutant party shortly after before Robbie Henshaw claimed the Lions’ third to give the Lions a comfortable 21-0 lead at the break.
Courtney Lawes had a try ruled out after the restart but Tadhg Beirne became the third player to score on debut on 49 minutes, with Dan Bigger kicking all four conversions.
Japan responded with their first try ten minutes later as Kazuki Himeno found a gap off the back of a lineout while Yu Tamura cut the deficit further with a penalty on 69 minutes.
But despite the visitors fighting until the final whistle, nothing could stop the Lions from making a winning start to the Tour. Next stop, South Africa.
TANDY’S DEFENCE TESTED EARLY
Japan may have not played an international Test since their 2019 Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to South Africa but there were no signs of rustiness in the opening minutes.
The Brave Blossoms took no time at all to test the Lions defence, swinging the Lions from the left touchline to the right before Clermont Auvergne star Kotaro Matsushima threatened to strike.
But the Lions defence, overseen by Steve Tandy, marshalled the danger impressively as Jack Conan left his imprint on the contest with a superb turnover in the tenth minute.
One tactic the Lions looked to employ regularly was not contesting the breakdowns, with the tourists instead focused on keeping Japan on their feet and ripping the ball in the tackle.
Liam Williams also did brilliantly to keep out Matsushima again on the cusp of half-time, with the Lions’ intensity and speed at the breakdown ensuring a pointless first half for Japan.
It was the same story after the interval as Bundee Aki showed why he was selected in the centres for the Tour to South Africa, securing an early turnover to halt Japan’s attack.
Japan did eventually find a way through the red wall just before the hour mark but Tandy will take great encouragement from the Lions limiting the Brave Blossoms to just one try.
DEBUTANTS TAKE THEIR OPPORTUNITY
Gatland handed starts to six Lions debutants against Japan.
Wingers Adams and Van der Merwe were two of those given a chance to make their mark – and they certainly grasped their opportunity with both hands in Edinburgh.
Adams continued his red-hot form from the 2021 Six Nations as the Welshman crossed for the opening try after 11 minutes, following excellent work from fellow debutant Aki.
That was the first glimpse at Gregor Townsend’s fast and furious attack, which was demonstrated again just six minutes later when Scotland’s Van der Merwe dotted down.
Playing in front of fans for the first time at BT Murrayfield, the South African-born powerhouse picked the ball up at the back of a ruck and sneaked around the corner to score.
It was then the turn of Beirne to score his first in Lions’ colours after the break, proving he is more than just a turnover machine as the Ireland back row raced in before the hour.
BIGGAR STAKES A CLAIM AT NO.10
Although Biggar was a tourists in 2017, the Welsh fly-half was unable to break into the Test side against New Zealand as he found himself behind Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell.
But he showed exactly what he can do after being entrusted with the No.10 shirt by Gatland against Japan, kicking all three of his conversions in the opening 40 minutes.
He also played a prominent role in the Lions’ fourth try after the interval, timing his pass to Beirne perfectly as the Irishman stormed through the Japan defence to score under the posts.
As he had done in the first half, Biggar added the extras again.
Yet it was not just off the tee where the 31-year-old showed his accuracy with the boot, with his kicking to touch equally impressive to maintain the pressure on Japan throughout.
If this was an early audition for a Test place, Biggar undoubtedly passed with flying colours. His performance unsurprisingly resulted in him deservedly taking the Man of the Match award.
MOMENTUM KEY FOR LIONS
The last time the Lions played a home fixture was against Argentina in 2005 when a late Jonny Wilkinson penalty salvaged a 25-25 draw ahead of the Tour to New Zealand.
That unconvincing performance was followed by a disappointing series whitewash so it’s no surprise that a lot of the talk ahead of this contest was about momentum.
Losing skipper Alun Wyn Jones within the first seven minutes was a far from ideal start, briefly leaving the 16,500 spectators speechless, but Adams’ try got the Lions back on track.
From there the Lions didn’t look back as further first-half tries from Van der Merwe and Henshaw, plus another from Beirne after the restart, ensured the men in red hit the ground running.
While the Lions’ intensity waned in the final quarter of the game, they still managed to keep out Matsushima as Japan continued to probe the Lions in the closing stages.
Ultimately, it was a winning start for Gatland’s men and while there will be some injury concerns, the Lions will fly out to South Africa with momentum firmly on their side.