The British and Irish Lions have announced a pre-tour Test warm-up against Japan that will be staged at Edinburgh’s BT Murrayfield Stadium the weekend before the tour party departs for South Africa.
Warren Gatland will coach the Lions for the third consecutive tour against the world champion Springboks, with the first of five warm-up matches due to take place on Saturday 3 July next year, with a three-Test series allowing the former Wales coach to attempt to hold an unbeaten status against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa at the same time.
Much has been made of the shortened tour format, which has seen the number of matches reduced from 10 to eight due to an ever-squeezing rugby calendar and concerns over player welfare. But Gatland was determined to add a send-off match to the schedule, and the Kiwi has got his wish with Japan due to face the Lions for the first time on Saturday 26 June.
“We saw Japan play some excellent rugby during the World Cup and they will come to Edinburgh fully-motivated to win,” said Gatland.
“They are a talented side who play high-tempo rugby, so it’ll be a good challenge for us ahead of the Tour, and a chance for the match day squad to put their hands up for Test selection.”
However, the Test will clash with the Premiership final, meaning that Gatland will not have his entire squad available for the match against Japan. The Pro14 is also expected to conclude around that date, if not on the same weekend, with the second half of the season yet to be confirmed, but despite the player absences the Lions will go ahead with the farewell match.
“One of our objectives is to give Warren and the playing squad as much meaningful preparation as possible before departing on Tour, so we are delighted to have agreed this fixture,” said Ben Calveley, managing director of the British and Irish Lions.
“A Lions Test is one of the most iconic events in world sport, but a huge number of fans from the home nations never get the chance to see one live. The Vodafone Lions 1888 Cup match will give even more supporters the opportunity to be part of the next chapter in Lions history.
“It will be an ‘I was there’ moment, against an entertaining and highly-respected opposition.”
It will not be the first time that the Lions have staged a pre-tour match in preparation for facing one of the three southern hemisphere giants. In 2005, Sir Clive Woodward’s side met Argentina at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium before going on to suffer a heavy series defeat by the All Blacks, while eight years later Gatland’s squad dismantled the Barbarians at a humid Hong Kong Stadium.
The match will also present Japan with the chance to try and build on their success at last year’s Rugby World Cup, although they have not been able to play an international since they reached the quarter-finals of the tournament for the first time. Japan were forced to withdraw from the planned Autumn Nations Cup next month due to coronavirus travel restrictions, but Japan Rugby Football Union president Shigetaka Mori believes the encounter against the Lions will help put Japan back on the world map.
“It is a great honour for us to be able to play a Test match against the British & Irish Lions,” said Mori.
“I hope that many rugby fans from around the world will witness the historic match between the Lions and Japan and enjoy the brand of rugby to be showcased by each side.”
Fans can register their interest for tickets for the Vodaphone Lions 1888 Cup match from today, with tickets set to go on sale on Tuesday 3 November.