THIS is it. The long wait is over. Four years on from their last outing, a 15-15 draw that saw them square the series with the All Blacks, the British & Irish Lions are finally back in business.
The fact that the four-nation select spends so long in hibernation invariably means that the first match of a new tour follows a predictable pattern: one in which they struggle for a time to get the better of their less talented but more battle-hardened opponents, before eventually making their class tell. But Japan, the team the Lions will face at BT Murrayfield this afternoon, are an altogether different kind of opposition.
For one thing, Jamie Joseph’s team themselves have not played for nearly two years – since the 2019 Rugby World Cup, in fact, when they beat both Scotland and Ireland en route to the quarter-finals. Yet although that means that they too will surely show some signs of rustiness, their skill levels are a cut above what the Lions tend to meet on their initial fixtures in their three southern-hemisphere destinations.
Japan do not boast the Springboks’ fearsome physicality, so in that sense it will be a different kind of test for the home side as they look ahead to their eight games in South Africa which will culminate in three internationals against the world champions. But they
do have a fantastic spirit, never accepting defeat, an attitude which will allow the Lions to gauge exactly how fit they are after their two-week training camp in Jersey.
“Japan as a whole have lots of quality across the game,” Lions defence coach Steve Tandy said yesterday. “What they did in the World Cup was absolutely fantastic.
“Beating Ireland and Scotland was a massive achievement. They have got threats right across the park and I know they will cause us problems defensively.”
In essence, a Lions tour is about problem-solving. The coaching team have to identify the weak links in their squad and eliminate as many as they can as quickly as possible if they are to have a chance of beating South Africa, New Zealand or Australia in the Test series itself.
So in a way, difficulties will be welcomed today. Better to have your demerits demonstrated now than in a month’s time when it matters most.
But ideally of course, anything that goes wrong this afternoon will be rectified in short order, ensuring that the tourists head south on Monday with a morale-boosting win under their belts. The deep feeling of self-reliance that only victory brings will certainly
be needed in South Africa, where the scrutiny and scepticism directed at visiting sides can at times verge on the predatory.
Duhan van der Merwe, for one, is well aware of what could await in the country of his birth. Indeed, the Scotland winger, who makes his Lions debut this afternoon alongside Edinburgh team-mate Rory Sutherland, has already experienced some unwelcome attention from his homeland, as he revealed yesterday.
“You get the odd comment like ‘He’s obviously born in South Africa, he shouldn’t be representing Scotland or the Lions’,” the 26-year-old said. “I’ve just been ignoring all the stuff that people have been saying on social media. I know how I feel in my heart sitting here and representing the Lions and that’s all that matters.
“I’m absolutely buzzing being involved and I’m looking forward to going there and representing the Lions. I’m not going to go back and say, look, this is what I achieved as a player, like ‘Screw you guys’. I’m just focusing on myself going back as a Lions player
and I’m absolutely buzzing.
“I really started my career here, in Edinburgh. I left South Africa at the age of 20 and if you’d asked me then ‘Do you ever think you’ll represent the British & Irish Lions on a tour to South Africa?’ I would probably have said no.
“I’m buzzing for tomorrow. I’m very excited to play and get my first start and represent the Lions – and play in front of fans.”
Around 16,500 people will be at Murrayfield for the match, which for many will be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the Lions on home soil. For some of the 23 men who will wear the red jersey it could be a unique opportunity of a different kind – their only chance to prove themselves worthy of a place in the Tests. Head coach Warren Gatland will not issue a public thumbs up or down to any of his players at the end of the game, but with just five matches to follow in South Africa before the first Test in Cape Town late next month, someone who makes a mis-step here will have precious little time in which to get back on track.