B&I Lions v Japan - teams and predictions
TRIAL RUN: They have been trying hard to sell it as the real deal, but in essence, it is a ‘curtain raiser’ for the eight-match tour to South Africa.
With the Premiership Final keeping some key players back and the Saracens crew arriving late, the proper jostling for Test places won’t start until they arrive in the Republic.
Despite the protestations to the contrary, most of their planning has already been geared towards the tour that gets underway with a match against the Johannesburg-based Lions next Saturday.
Japan plays nothing like the Springboks do – that much British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland admitted.
That is why he suggested the key is to strike a balance between a gameplan to take on Japan and a longer-term outlook to prepare for the Springboks.
“Japan won’t have the same physical prowess in terms of trying to take you on at set-piece, scrum and line-out and mauling and being very direct like we expect South Africa to be,” Gatland told a virtual media briefing this week.
“We’ve got that in mind and we want to go out there and play a gameplan against Japan where we feel we can be successful with, but also keeping in mind that we are preparing towards South Africa as well.
“So there are two things, we are trying to cover off both challenges.”
Gatland and his assistants all talked up Japan as World Cup quarterfinalists – a team who beat Scotland and Ireland.
They also spoke about “having respect” for the opposition.
The matchday 23 is largely made up of players who have been in camp with the Lions since they first arrived in Jersey.
For Japan, the focus is vastly different.
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Having not played since the World Cup in 2019 – when they lost 3–26 to South Africa in the quarterfinal – they won’t be expecting any major miracles.
Yes, they will play to win and put in a serious effort.
However, they have a number of star individuals that could make this an interesting and entertaining encounter.
Apart from their South African connections – like Pieter Labuschagne and Wimpie van der Walt – there is Kazuki Himeno, who was a star performer for the Highlanders in Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
The other, big, focus is the opportunity for the Japanese players to put themselves in the European shop window.
Kotaro Matsushima sees this as such an opportunity.
“As a player, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience because I can’t imagine I’ll have another chance to play against the Lions,” Matsushima said about Saturday’s outing in Edinburgh.
“It’s a very important match for me.
“If we put in a good performance as a team and if we can win against the “B&I Lions, we’ll get a huge amount of attention.
“That’s a huge motivation for me and the team, so we have a strong determination.
Having made his international debut back in 2014, Matsushima made history on home soil when he became the first Japanese player to score a World Cup hat-trick in 2019, accomplishing the feat against Russia.
That performance propelled him to sporting superstardom in his own country and also helped earn a move to French side Clermont Auvergne, where he has shone this season in the Top 14.
And the 28-year-old is hoping that being based in Europe can give him an edge against the Lions on Saturday.
“Every week, I have been watching the English Premiership, so I think I’ve got some understanding of the type of game they’ll play,” added Matsushima.
“For me, it’s easier to expect what they’ll do but they’ve got some great players, so I’m excited to play against them. It should be a great experience.
“I expect there will be a lot of kicking in the game and the box-kicking will be very high, so as a member of the back-three, I’ll be focusing on that.
“It’s difficult to say who I’m looking forward to playing most – each name is a big player, so I can’t decide on one.”
Players to watch
For the British and Irish Lions: The midfield combination of Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki is already the talk of the town, while South African-born wing Duhan van der Merwe gets a change to stake his claim. Irish loose forward Tadhg Beirne is another highly-rated player that will have plenty of spotlight on him and tour captain Alun Wyn Jones will run out in front.
For Japan: With 10 players having started in that World Cup quarterfinal loss to South Africa in 2019, there is a settled look. However, the key is how the pack performs – with players like captain Michael Leitch, the South African duo of Pieter Labuschagne and Wimpie van der Walt, along with the Tongan-born Amanaki Lelei Mafi the key to their hopes of an upset.
Head to head
These teams have never faced each other before, but the Scottish and Irish contingent will not have fond memories of their last encounters with Japan – who beat Ireland 19-12 at the Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, Fukuroi, in 2019 and smashed Scotland 34-0 at the Kobe Misaki Stadium at the World Cup.
@rugby365com: The B&I Lions by 15 points
British and Irish Lions: 15 Liam Williams, 14 Josh Adams, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Duhan van der Merwe, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Tadhg Beirne, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rory Sutherland.
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Wyn Jones, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Courtney Lawes, 20 Taulupe Faletau, 21 Ali Price, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Anthony Watson.
Japan: 15 Ryohei Yamanaka, 14 Kotaro Matsushima, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Ryoto Nakamura, 11 Siosaia Fifita, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Kaito Shigeno, 8 Amanaki Lelei Mafi, 7 Pieter Labuschagne, 6 Michael Leitch (captain), 5 James Moore, 4 Wimpie van der Walt, 3 Jiwon Koo, 2 Atsushi Sakate, 1 Keita Inagaki.
Replacements: 16 Kosuke Horikoshi, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Asaeli Ai Valu, 19 Jack Cornelsen, 20 Kazuki Himeno, 21 Tevita Tatafu, 22 Naoto Saito, 23 Rikiya Matsuda.
Date: Saturday, June 26
Venue: Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh
Kick-off: 15.00 (14.00 GMT; 23.00 JST)
Referee: Pascal Gaüzère
Assistant referees: Pierre Brousset, Ludovic Cayre
TMO: Eric Gauzins
@rugby365com, with additional reporting by @lionsofficial