Lions team to face Japan offers opportunity for some – and risk for others

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Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones leads the team during an open training session - PA
Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones leads the team during an open training session - PA

Warren Gatland has chosen five Scots for the Lions opening warm-up match against Japan at Murrayfield, but for the first time in 71 years no Englishmen will be represented in the starting XV.

While the Lions board have yet to confirm whether players will earn an international cap for selection, Gatland says that he is treating Saturday as a proper Test match with ten first-time Lions in the squad. He also confirmed the selection of Scotland props Rory Sutherland and Zander Fagerson alongside flanker Hamish Watson and wing Duhan van der Merwe in the starting team with scrum half Ali Price on the bench was linked to fact that this will be the Lions’ first ever match on Scottish soil. “If you're playing in Scotland, you want a reasonable representation of Scottish players,” Gatland said. “For those players it's important they get the chance to play at Murrayfield in front of their own fans and family.”

For the first time since the sixth Test of the 1950 tour to Australia and New Zealand, there are no Englishmen in the starting XV. Only Courtney Lawes and Anthony Watson, both named on the bench, were present for the first week’s training camp in Jersey while Saracens pair Owen Farrell and Jamie George are also among the replacements after arriving on Monday.

Gatland readily admits that Farrell was not on form during a Six Nations campaign in which England finished fifth. However it is a mark of the respect in which both Gatland and the wider squad hold Farrell that he was a resounding choice to be included within the leadership group.

“I've spoken to Owen and the chat was that it wasn't the greatest Six Nations (from him) but we picked him on the leadership he has and experience he can bring,” Gatland said. “He’s a competitor, and what he's achieved in the game, the success he has had speaks for itself.

“At the administration day I asked the players all to vote and pick four for the leadership group. We’ve done that. It was interesting that he (Farrell) ended up with the most votes out of anyone in the leadership group. It speaks volumes for the respect in which he's held by the other players in the group - not just the England players, but the others too. I think knowing him as a competitor he'll go out and make the most of his opportunities, and I expect him to have a great tour.”

The five-strong Saracens contingent started training on Tuesday morning with a 7am altitude session and Gatland says they looked sharp. By contrast during the Six Nations, they seemed distinctly undercooked for England but Gatland is confident he can bring them up to speed from playing in the Championship. “All I can say is that we're very happy with how they trained this morning, and this afternoon we'll see how they go as well,” Gatland said. “The proof will be when they play. A lot was made of the Six Nations and them looking under-done, it's probably a fair enough criticism of them. We've got time together within a number of weeks if anyone is a little short we feel we can get them up to speed.”

Conor Murray and Dan Biggar will form the half-back pairing while Gatland has sought “cohesion” in many of his other combinations. Former Connacht teammates Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw are named in the centres while fellow Irish players Tadhg Beirne and Jack Conan start in the back row.

The Exeter quartet of Sam Simmonds, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jonny Hill and Stuart Hogg will join the Lions party after Saturday’s Premiership final against Harlequins, but Gatland insists everyone will have the opportunity to stake their claim for a starting place in the Test series against world champions South Africa.

“We are not fixed in our thoughts, we haven’t got any preconceived ideas about the Test side at the moment,” Gatland said. “We are giving everyone an opportunity and want to see who puts their hand up and makes a real impression. Players that play well will get that chance, and the door is never closed to anyone.

“That was definitely the message in 2017, even before the first Test. We said to the players who played against the Chiefs on the Tuesday that we had yet to decide and there was still an opportunity for players to get selected in the Test side. A couple of those players put their hand up against the chiefs and were selected in the Test 23 as well.”

Comment: This tightest of all tours means players must hit ground running

By Gavin Mairs

Warren Gatland, in announcing his first Lions selection, has once again made his admirable pledge that every player in his 37-man squad will have the opportunity to start a game before the first Test against South Africa in Cape Town next month.

It is a selection strategy that can be traced back to the reaction to the failed “two-squad” tour under Sir Clive Woodward in 2005 and has underpinned the bond between the coaching staff and players since the Lions last toured South Africa in 2009. Morale is everything on a Lions tour. History shows us that highly-talented Lions squads have left these shores only to fail because of the absence of a one-for-all attitude. Gatland’s pledge is one of the key foundation stones of creating that bond.

He wants the players to go to South Africa knowing that there is no preordained Test team. Not even the captain, Alun Wyn Jones, will travel with his place guaranteed. And, yet, the opportunity that comes with the promise of a start can also have an extremely short shelf-life.

The players selected to face Japan at Murrayfield on Saturday know that, while they have the honour of wearing the famous red jersey for the first time on this tour, there is no guarantee it will come with another one.

If the concept of playing for the Lions on home soil may not sit well with traditionalists and may feel odd for the players, they will know that they must hit the ground running at Murrayfield if they want to make an early impression on Gatland and his coaching team.

Four years ago in New Zealand, the first Lions side selected had virtually no preparation time and players were suffering from jet lag when they were almost overwhelmed by a passionate New Zealand Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei. The Lions scraped home 13-7 but players finished the game feeling they were already far from consideration for the Test series. Only four went on to start the first Test against the All Blacks in Auckland – Jones, Taulupe Faletau, Ben Te’o and Anthony Watson.

You have to go back to the opening game of the 1997 tour of South Africa, against an Eastern Province XV, for the last time over half the side that started the first game ended up being selected for the first Test.

There will be even fewer opportunities on this tour, given the further reduction in the number of matches from 10 to eight when they get to South Africa.

The interesting twist to this selection is that because of the unavailability of the Premiership finalists, and the fact that the Saracens players plus Finn Russell, have only just joined up with the squad, Gatland’s first selection contains a number of players who would be considered at this stage to be favourites for the Test team – Jones, Liam Williams, Robbie Henshaw, Dan Biggar and Conor Murray, and several others who must be close, such as Hamish Watson, Bundee Aki and Duhan van der Merwe.

Then there is another tier with a major point to prove: Ken Owens, Rory Sutherland, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne and Jack Conan. It makes it one of the strongest opening selections of the professional era and one that could have the biggest impact on future selections.

Make a good impression on Saturday and your tour is up and running, whereas a poor display will leave you wondering if there will ever be time to make up for it.

The other key aspect to Saturday’s game will be the bedding in of units such as Murray and Biggar, and how Aki and Henshaw operate outside them. This has the potential to be the combination for the first Test.

It will be important, too, to give significant game time to the Saracens pair on the bench – Jamie George and Owen Farrell – given their relative lack of top-flight competitive club rugby since the end of the Six Nations. The pair were Test starters in New Zealand four years ago, but they are both facing stiff competition on the back of Six Nations form.

Japan will bring a sense of frisson to the contest and the fact that 10 of the Lions’ starting XV are from Scotland or Ireland, both of whom lost to the Brave Blossoms at the World Cup, will add an extra edge. Gatland will no doubt tap into any lingering frustrations to drive the performance in front of the crowd of 16,000 at Murrayfield.

But, in truth, they are far from ideal opponents for the Lions. Their high-tempo game may have been a revelation at the last World Cup but it is far removed from the gladiatorial physicality that awaits the Lions in South Africa.

For that reason, there is no point Gatland setting up his side to counter the strengths of Japan and the indications are that he has not. This should be the first step towards blending a tactical game to beat the Springboks and to that respect, the side Gatland has selected looks direct and menacing. And with all to play for.

Scroll down for today's team announcement as it happened

11:01 AM

Potential Test starters

OK, I appreciate it's the first game, but from that XV you could maybe pencil in the following as starters for the first Test against South Africa:

  • Alun Wyn Jones - Obviously, as captain.

  • Liam Williams - Hogg's form has not quite as sharp as the Six Nations, and Williams has credit in the bank from 2017 too.

  • Dan Biggar - The form No 10 out of himself, Owen Farrell (who's playing pretty well, in fairness) and Finn Russell.

  • Conor Murray - Didn't think we'd be saying this at the start of the Six Nations, but, an early run-out for Murray and Biggar at half-back won't do the Ireland scrum-half's chances any harm.

Then there's question marks over Ken Owens, Tadhg Beirne and Hamish Watson, who could all feasibly start. Bundee Aki too, maybe.

Which leaves Josh Adams, Duhan van der Merwe, Rory Sutherland, Zander Fagerson, Iain Henderson and Jack Conan with points to prove. Henderson probably has the strongest claims to be involved in the Test side out of that mini group.

10:44 AM

Lions in Jersey

You can catch up on another well-produced episode from the Lions camp right now!

10:36 AM

Players in Jersey not in the 23

The ones to miss out are Chris Harris, Louis Rees-Zammit, Justin Tipuric and Gareth Davies.

Kyle Sinckler, Tom Curry, Maro Itoje, Elliot Daly, Finn Russell and Mako Vunipola have all arrived in the past couple of days.

10:29 AM

Stat

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10:20 AM

Squad broken down by country and club

10:09 AM

Analysis

Every one of the Irish players called up has made the side, which is interesting. Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw's partnership is a familiar one going back to their days winning the Pro12 with Connacht, and certainly has a nice balance to it.

With Stuart Hogg not yet in camp, it's an early chance for Liam Williams to nail down the full-back slot, and you could say the same about Dan Biggar at 10. He currently feels like the frontrunner to start there in the Test series and if Conor Murray can start gelling well with him at half-back, that will help Murray's Test chances too.

Dan Biggar during the British and Irish Lions training session - GETTY IMAGES
Dan Biggar during the British and Irish Lions training session - GETTY IMAGES

The pack aside from Alun Wyn Jones (of course) feels less certain - in other words, the Japan game is a big opportunity for the players selected to lay down a marker, particular Tadhg Beirne at six and Hamish Watson at seven.

Ken Owens was pivotal for Wales in their Six Nations title win, but could he edge out Jamie George for the Test series? Rory Sutherland impressed with his play in the loose during the Six Nations too.

10:05 AM

Here's Warren Gatland

We’re anticipating a tough game against Japan – a side that like to play at a high-tempo and shift the ball.
We saw throughout the World Cup they have attacking threats across the park and a solid defence and set piece.
I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made during our training camp in Jersey so far, but we’ve a long way to go. You can see that the squad are starting to get to grips with our game strategies, but, as always with a Lions Tour, this takes time to bed in.
We’re in a good place though and I can tell there’s a lot more to come from this group.
Everyone in the squad will get a start before the start of the Test Series, so each member of the squad can put their hand up for Test selection.
We are absolutely delighted to be playing in front of sixteen thousand supporters in Edinburgh. I’m sure the crowd will give the players an enormous lift before we depart for South Africa on Sunday.

10:02 AM

Team in full

15. Liam Williams (Wales)

14. Josh Adams (Wales)

13. Robbie Henshaw (Ireland)

12. Bundee Aki (Ireland)

11. Duhan van der Merwe (Scotland)

10. Dan Biggar (Wales)

9. Conor Murray (Ireland)

1. Rory Sutherland (Scotland)

2. Ken Owens (Wales)

3. Zander Fagerson (Scotland)

4. Iain Henderson (Ireland)

5. Alun Wyn Jones (c, Wales)

6. Tadhg Beirne (Ireland)

7. Hamish Watson (Scotland)

8. Jack Conan (Ireland)

Replacements: 16. Jamie George (England), 17. Wyn Jones (Wales), 18. Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), 19. Courtney Lawes (England), 20. Taulupe Faletau (Wales), 21. Ali Price (Scotland), 22. Owen Farrell (England), 23. Anthony Watson (England)

10:01 AM

Lions name XV to face Japan

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10:00 AM

Hearing there are four England players on the bench

Jamie George, Courtney Lawes, Owen Farrell and Anthony Watson. Should have the full team through shortly.

09:55 AM

In terms of injuries

There's no word of any of the Lions players carrying any niggles, so you'd assume there's a full bill of health to select from. Given Cowan-Dickie is with Exeter, Jamie George can expect a spot on the bench despite only linking up with the squad on Monday, given the only other hooker available is Ken Owens.

09:54 AM

Not long to go

I cannot find any official highlights anywhere from the Lions' warm-up fixture against Argentina from 2005, which is a shame.

That game you may remember finished in a 25-25 draw, and was the last time the Lions played a match on British or Irish soil - until this Saturday at Murrayfield of course.

It took Jonny Wilkinson's boot that day to bail the Lions out.

I'm very relieved. I wouldn't have felt very good if it hadn't gone over.

Looking back, it was a sign of the tough times to come in New Zealand.

Jonny Wilkinson is tackled by Felipe Contemponi - GETTY IMAGES
Jonny Wilkinson is tackled by Felipe Contemponi - GETTY IMAGES

09:36 AM

Hear from Geech

Ahead of the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa Brian Moore will be sitting down with former players and coaches to discuss some of the memories which have made the Lions become the institution it is today.

First up is the man dubbed 'Mr Lions', Sir Ian McGeechan. McGeechan had an illustrious Lions career as a player, but it is his work as a head coach which will see him go down a true Lions legend. He takes Brian on a journey through his early days as a player in 1974, right the way through to the historic series in 2009 where he came back as a head coach for one last time following a twelve-year absence.

Ahead of this year's tour to South Africa he details what he believes is the secret to a successful tour and more importantly what is required to tame the Springboks. You'll also hear his thoughts on current Lions head coach Warren Gatland, who was part of the 2009 tour, and whether or not he would have made any different selections were he in charge himself.

09:28 AM

Exeter's Lions ticking over

Charlie Morgan was at Sandy Park on Saturday and there was plenty to savour from Cowan-Dickie and Hill as they round out the Premiership season with another final before linking up with the Lions.

analysis
analysis

09:10 AM

News just in from England

Manu Tuilagi has pulled out of the squad ahead of this weekend's England 'A' game against Scotland 'A' after picking up an injury in the Premiership semi-final for Sale. No word yet on what injury or how serious.

Fraser Dingwall (Northampton) has been called up.

08:57 AM

The man getting the Lions up to speed

Paul 'Bobby' Stridgeon is some character. Here's Daniel Schofield on the man in charge with getting the Lions into top shape in South Africa.

Paul Stridgeon, the Lions chief strength and conditioning coach  - GETTY IMAGES
Paul Stridgeon, the Lions chief strength and conditioning coach - GETTY IMAGES

08:46 AM

Morning everyone

We're just over an hour away from the first Lions team announcement of the summer, which feels like a semi-momentous moment.

The squad are still arriving in Jersey in dribs and drabs following the conclusion of their respective domestic seasons, with the Saracens quintet and Finn Russell the latest players to jet in on Monday.

That just leaves the four Exeter Chiefs - Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jonny Hill, Sam Simmonds and Stuart Hogg - to link up with the squad, leaving Warren Gatland with a fairly strong hand to select from ahead of facing Japan.

08:31 AM

Saracens' Lions link up with squad

Jamie George insists the British and Irish Lions' Saracens contingent are ready to meet the physical demands of the tour to South Africa despite a season spent campaigning in the Championship.

The club's five Lions jetted into Jersey on Monday morning to join up with Warren Gatland's squad less than 24 hours after dismantling Ealing for the second time in a week to secure an immediate return to the Gallagher Premiership.

While buoyant over regaining their place in the top flight, they must now demonstrate that 11 matches in the second tier of English rugby have not left them ill-prepared to face the world champions.

A lack of match sharpness after two months of inactivity was exposed early on in England's Six Nations, but George insists the Championship has tested their mettle.

"Many of the games are as physical as any of the games we are going to play in - especially in the front five forwards," he said.

"The league is probably not as quick as the Premiership, but in terms of the physicality it's right up there.

"There are challenges in there - game time is obviously a big thing and we have been getting a lot of game time.

"We're also really lucky we have someone like (Saracens performance director) Phil Morrow. He heads up our performance and was on the previous Lions tour.

"He knows what it takes to get yourself physically and mentally right to go on that tour.

"He's been tailoring our programme to make sure we hit the ground running when we get to Jersey."

Gatland on Tuesday names his team to face Japan in Saturday's pre-tour clash at Murrayfield and as one of only two hookers in Jersey for the Lions' training camp, George is primed for a bench role with Ken Owens set to start.

"The main thing for me will be getting up to speed in terms of the line-out calls and plays," George said.

"But we are on a Lions tour, I'm going to get my head down, do my homework and be as ready as I possibly can be.

"The nice thing is we know there are only six days from arriving to when we play Japan so there is going to be a lot of emphasis on getting to know your stuff.

"I would love to play against Japan. It's an opportunity to play for the Lions on home soil, which doesn't come around very often. I will take every opportunity I can to play."

Bundee Aki is primed for a midfield role in Edinburgh as he reflects on his path from bank teller in Auckland to selection for the Lions.

Aki quit rugby in 2011 in order to earn money to support his family but was convinced to return by All Blacks great Tana Umaga and, three years later, he was playing for Connacht where he qualified for Ireland on residency grounds.

"At the time I had a newborn and I had to make a decision on whether I wanted to pursue a career in rugby," Aki said.

"Obviously it's all about my family, all about my kids, so I had to make that sacrifice to be able to provide for my family.

"At the time I was only playing club rugby so, looking back, I wouldn't change a thing because I did everything I can to provide for my family and put them first." PA

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