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The British and Irish Lions expect Japan to provide a thorough defensive examination on Saturday at Murrayfield as they begin their summer against a nation that has “shocked the rugby world” in recent years.
Ahead of their tour of South Africa and what promises to be a ferocious Test series against the Springboks, the Lions could not have hand-picked a more contrasting assignment.
Coached by Jamie Joseph and former New Zealand fly-half Tony Brown, one of sport’s more inventive thinkers, Japan will be expected to maintain possession and impart the intricate, fast-paced phase-play that has helped them overturn South Africa, Ireland and Scotland at the last two Rugby World Cups.
Along with the rest of Warren Gatland’s backroom team, Lions defence coach Steve Tandy has examined historical data on the Brave Blossoms. He watched their 32-17 win over former Super Rugby franchise the Sunwolves earlier this month, which represented Japan’s first outing since losing to South Africa in the quarter-final of the 2019 World Cup.
“I wouldn’t see this as a curtain-raiser,” Tandy said earlier this week. “I see it as a full-blooded Test match.
“Japan are coming here to perform, they’ve got some serious firepower and [know] how they want to play the game. They’re going to keep the ball for long periods, so we know we’re going to have to be ready to go.”
“It’ll definitely be different,” Tandy added. “South Africa look to come through the front door first and foremost. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve got special players out wide as well.
“Japan are very creative. They play with lots of variety and lots of passes. They hold lots of width, so it’s definitely going to be a different test for us but an awesome test of how quickly we can get up and running with our principles and, hopefully, if we can deal with Japan’s threats it will hold us in good stead against South Africa.”
Ulster lock Iain Henderson, starting alongside Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones this weekend, was part of the Ireland line-up that were beaten 19-12 in Shizuoka and has not forgotten a chastening experience.
“You wind back to the last World Cup and you look at Ireland and Scotland,” he said. “Those were error-strewn performances [against Japan] that didn’t go the way those countries had planned.
“Potentially you could put it down to not paying enough attention to what Japan bring. I’ll definitely be going in to this game with an open mind, ensuring that we can get all our stuff right with our Lions detail by having a good idea of the intensity and accuracy the Japanese will bring. If you forget about that I think you will find yourself in a difficult place.”
“I think the Welsh and English have a good understanding [of Japan’s quality], too, from the outside looking at the upsets and the big performances that the Japanese have put in over the last few years.
“They have been incredible. They’ve shocked and surprised, in a good way, a lot of the rugby playing world.”
Analysis: Watch out for intricate off-the-ball movement from Japan playmakers
At their home World Cup, Japan hung their attack on a 1-3-2-2 framework with forwards strung across the field in that pod formation.
Across the board, they have slick distributors. This stunning try against Scotland, scored by Keita Inagaki, demonstrates how fluid the 1-3-2-2 framework can be:
Tony Brown, assistant coach and attacking mastermind, prefers not to get too hung up on those numbers. Instead, he entrusts players to populate the field according to “space and opportunity” and to be “willing to attack at all times”.
With that in mind, it will be fascinating to see how Japan have moved on in the past 18 months. Beguiling lineout moves are a safe bet. Brown’s Highlanders confounded opponents throughout their Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman campaigns with strike-moves such as this one:
Ironically enough, some northern hemisphere nations have adopted Japan’s approach over the past 18 months. Ireland and Wales use a 1-3-2-2 shape and England seemed to trial it against Italy in the recent Six Nations.
Incidentally, the Lions are more suited to a 1-3-2-2 pattern after their late changes. Tadhg Furlong has been hugely effective as a midfield carrier for Ireland and Justin Tipuric, another man promoted to the starting line-up, evidently enjoys a wide role.
Watch this clip. The openside flanker starts as part of a two-man pod with Taulupe Faletau. Wales feed a midfield three-man pod and play out the back to Leigh Halfpenny, who feeds Tipuric.
A dummy drags up James Lowe before Tipuric’s cut-out pass to Louis Rees-Zammit allows the wing to make ground close to the far touchline:
Some stars of Japan’s World Cup stars, and influential figures within style, have gone. Scrum-half Yutaka Nagare, an expert at bouncing between rucks and using slick service to help zig-zag up-field and manipulate defence, is not part of the current squad.
Neither is versatile, skilful hooker Shota Horie. Superb wing Kenki Fukuoka has retired to study medicine.
At blindside flanker, though, superb skipper Michael Leitch remains. Iain Henderson recalls him “causing a lot of problems” for Ireland.
Dynamic back-rower Kazuki Himeno is on the bench after his excellent season with the Highlanders, but Amanaki Mafi offers explosive power and punch at the base of the scrum.
Elsewhere, there is enough continuity to ensure cohesion. Inagaki starts at loosehead prop on Saturday, with Koo Ji-won at tighthead.
Kotaro Matsushima, now of Clermont, is still there. This slicing finish against Bristol Bears last December, which completed his hat-trick, encapsulates his ability to cut devastating angles at speed:
He is due to be on the right wing, outside offloading centre Timonthy Lafaele. As ever, it will be Japan’s collective display that will be more intriguing than the individuals on show.
Although this Panasonic Wild Knights try against Toyota Verblitz in the Top League play-offs was finished brilliantly by Fukuoka, it was made by some clever movement from fly-half Rikiya Matsuda that sums up the trickery with which Japan will challenge the Lions:
Matsuda has been named among the Japan replacements for Saturday. Here, he begins in the middle of what looks like a regular, flat three-man pod shortly after the kick-off:
However, when the pass from scrum-half Keisuke Uchida heads to Inagaki, Matsuda slips into a deeper position:
He receives a pull-back pass from Inagaki and releases his outside backs:
It is as if Matsuda has been hiding in plain sight. Some subtle movement changes the picture rapidly and Verblitz are caught too narrow.
Expect similar deception from Japan at Murrayfield for the entire 80 minutes.