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Lions and Japan primed for tour warmup at Murrayfield

·3-min read

EDINBURGH, Scotland (AP) — The last time the British and Irish Lions had a home game, they overlooked it.

It was 2005, and Clive Woodward's Lions were focused on touring New Zealand. Their Argentina opponents arrived in Cardiff for the tour warmup without 26 first-choice players. The Pumas wanted to prove themselves and humbled the Lions, who needed a late Jonny Wilkinson penalty from the sideline to escape with a 25-25 draw.

Lessons were learned, and Warren Gatland has been determined to ensure the mistakes of 2005 aren’t repeated on Saturday in Edinburgh.

Japan agreed to warm up the Lions before they head to South Africa for an eight-match tour that is two matches shorter than the previous tour, in 2017 to New Zealand. Given a reduced lead-in to the test series against the world champion Springboks, the Lions’ first ever match with Japan has importance in developing cohesion and confidence.

The unavailability of about 10 Lions in various club playoffs made Gatland choose combinations to retain a measure of instinctiveness between players from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

Even after the late withdrawals of injured but recovering Scottish forwards Hamish Watson and Zander Fagerson, the tight five features two Irish and two Welsh including captain Alun Wyn Jones, two Irish loose forwards, the Irish midfield of Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki, and Welshmen Josh Adams and Liam Williams at the back.

Henshaw and Aki brighten up Gatland, who knows they’ve been a double act for seven years. Aki is one of the new Lions, the barger with subtle skills that Gatland appreciates, and the coach describes Henshaw as maturing into the Six Nations' outstanding midfielder. They have the first chance to impress.

"We're expecting a lot from those two and I think they're expecting a lot from themselves, too,” Gatland said.

The updated starting XV features seven Irish, six Welsh, and two Scots to keep the limited crowd of 16,500 happy at Murrayfield. The reserves include five Englishmen.

To Gatland, playing well is just as important as winning.

“We'll be a little rusty as we're trying to put in layers in what we want to achieve,” he said. ”Getting calls and getting familiar with each other, we know that's going to take some time. These players get a chance to start this tour on the right foot. But it's an important job for the whole squad that we go out there and put in a good performance.”

The Lions aren’t expecting Japan to play like South Africa, but the Japanese have South African-type ambitions to boss the set-pieces and breakdowns.

They had a warmup two weeks ago, their first match in 20 months. The Sunwolves, Japan's former Super Rugby team, reformed one last time and dominated Japan for 50 minutes. Japan finally clicked after an hour and scored four tries to win 32-17.

The Japanese consider the Lions matchup a major honor. An experienced team has been picked. It hasn’t come this far to roll over.

"Huge significance for Japanese rugby and the team,” was how coach Jamie Joseph described the match.

They aren’t overlooking it.



British and Irish Lions: Liam Williams, Josh Adams, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Duhan van der Merwe, Dan Biggar, Conor Murray; Jack Conan, Justin Tipruic, Tadhg Beirne, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong, Ken Owens, Rory Sutherland. Reserves: Jamie George, Wyn Jones, Kyle Sinckler, Courtney Lawes, Taulupe Faletau, Ali Price, Owen Farrell, Anthony Watson.

Japan: Ryohei Yamanaka, Kotaro Matsushima, Timothy Lafaele, Ryoto Nakamura, Siosaia Fifita, Yu Tamura, Kaito Shigeno; Amanaki Lelei Mafi, Pieter Labuschagne, Michael Leitch (captain), James Moore,Wimpie van der Walt, Jiwon Koo, Atsushi Sakate, Keita Inagaki. Reserves: Kosuke Horikoshi, Craig Millar, Asaeli Ai Valu, Jack Cornelsen, Kazuki Himeno, Tevita Tatafu, Naoto Saito, Rikiya Matsuda.

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