In the space of a couple of hours, the meticulously laid plans of Warren Gatland have been thrown into disarray. Talisman and captain Alun Wyn Jones is out of the tour with a dislocated shoulder. This is a huge blow given his experience, leadership and presence on and off the field. The subsequent appointment of Conor Murray is a controversial call adding further pressure to the British and Irish Lions chances in South Africa. Amidst the injury crisis, the British and Irish Lions came away with a positive 28-10 victory over Japan at Murrayfield. Charlie Inglefield assesses an incident-filled start to the tour.
Charlie Inglefield reports on this weekend’s match up against Japan at Murrayfield.
Murray replaces Jones as captain
Conor Murray is a world-class scrum-half, hugely experienced and is currently on his third Lions tour. But is he the right man to captain the British Lions? Warren Gatland has gone past Owen Farrell, Stuart Hogg, Maro Itoje and Ken Owens in making his choice. Farrell although horribly out of form is captain of England as Stuart Hogg is for Scotland. Itoje was talked about as captain for this tour and is a guaranteed starter.
There is also the age-old adage of having a forward to lead the Lions into battle. Martin Johnson and Sam Warburton are an obvious recent example of forwards who have led Lions to victory through their physical, ‘they shall not pass’ attitude. That is not to say that Murray will not do a good job but it is a strange decision if one considers the options available. Jones is going to be missed both on and off the field.
Gatland has added Adam Beard and Josh Navidi to his Lions squad in place of injured duo Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric.
Biggar leads British and Irish Lions off on a positive note
Considering the preparation time and the opposition, the Lions management should be very pleased with the performance on Saturday. Japan is improving fast as a rugby nation and they threw plenty of questions at the Lions defence. The red line held firm, always a good first sign for tougher examinations to come. Dan Biggar has one foot in the number ten jumper after an excellent showing. Biggar was busy, imaginative, nailed his kicks and consistently put the Lions on the front foot.
Owen Farrell is capable of making the starting team as is Finn Russell. Gatland has excellent options there but Biggar made the most of his opportunity. What will further please the management is Biggar’s ability as a goal kicker. Against the Springboks, points will be at a premium, and goal kicking will be crucial in the final outcome.
Lawes, Henshaw and Beirne further their case
Courtney Lawes put in a powerful shift coming on as a replacement for Alun Wyn Jones. Lawes put in his trademark hits, moved well around the field and even had the energy for a neat offload at the end. Gatland will need Lawes at his physical best against the Springboks and on this performance, Lawes could be the man to replace Jones in the second row.
Robbie Henshaw continued his excellent form and is a shoo-in for the centres. Henshaw hit hard in defence and held up a Japanese opponent a couple of times to win the maul. He also took his try well running a great attacking line.
Tadhg Beirne took his chance with a powerful display of carries and defence culminating in a thunderous try under the sticks. Jack Conan also deserves a mention for his impact in the back row.
Van der Merwe and Faletau struggle
Duhan van der Merwe took his try brilliantly but doubts remain around his defensive abilities. The wonderful Kotara Matsushima caused nightmares on van der Merwe’s edge and with Cheslin Kolbe lining up in a few weeks, the Springboks would have noted the British and Irish Lions’ defensive problems. The Lions outside gave the likes of Matsushima too much space and the Japanese should have taken more of an advantage. Kolbe’s feet will play havoc with the Lions if they are as generous with the space they give out wide. Anthony Watson’s cameo towards the end of the game would not have helped van der Merwe’s chances.
Taulupe Faletau was strangely subdued coming on as a replacement for Justin Tipuric. There is no doubting his quality and work-rate, but he was run over by the Japanese a couple of times. Kazuki Himeno went straight through Faletua for Japan’s lineout try. Again the Springboks would have taken note of how easily Japan scored off an attacking lineout. The scrum and lineout are the two pillars that South African rugby is built on and the Lions have to improve in both of these areas.
There is plenty of time for Faletau to get his mojo going. His experience as a Lion and his ability at number 8 will be crucial for the team in South Africa and Gatland will hope that it was just a bit of rustiness from the Bath number 8.
Breakdown and discipline to be worked on
There will be lots of things to work on for the British Lions when they land in the Republic. Positive and negative. Japan was combative at the breakdown and the Lions were guilty of being isolated in the contact. The timing and combinations will come especially with jacklers like Tom Curry and Hamish Watson.
The last 20 minutes descended into a penalty fest which went against Warren Gatland’s men. Discipline will be key against the Springboks. The World Cup Final showed how efficient South Africa can be by dominating territory through their power up front and forcing penalties as a result. Against Japan, in the second half, the Lions lost their shape and their discipline allowing Japan to dominate the last quarter. It is early days but discipline will be a key focus for the Lions management going forward.
For now, it was a great start by the Lions but there are obvious concerns around the loss of Alun Wyn Jones. The senior players led by Conor Murray must step up in his absence.
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