The 2021 British and Irish Lions tour kicked on Saturday at Murrayfield as the Lions warmed up against Japan. While Japan put up a brave fight, the strength of the Lions pack saw them largely in control of the match and they opened up a 21-0 halftime lead, with tries from Josh Adams, Duhan van der Merwe and Robbie Henshaw. The Lions continued the assault after the break, and just minutes after Courtney Lawes had a try chalked off for losing control as he tried to ground the ball, Tadhg Beirne was put through a gap just outside the Japanese 22 and sprinted in for a try under the posts. As the replacements began to change things up, the momentum changed and the Brave Blossoms began to get some chances, with Kazuki Himeno scoring just before the hour mark and being held up over the line up in the final 10 minutes. The Lions emerged with the 28-10 victory, but it came at a cost, with Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric both ruled out of the rest of the tour, with Adam Beard and Josh Navidi being quickly drafted in to replace them and Conor Murray taking over the role of Tour Captain.
With the quality of back rows available to the British and Irish Lions, I think that the selection of Tadhg Beirne at 6 gave an insight into Warren Gatland’s plans for the Test matches.
The South African pack is a formidable unit and the word “behemoth” would be an accurate word to describe many of the players. While the Lions have some big units available in the back row, many of their players are smaller, more technical players. However, a number of the second rows selected for the touring party—Beirne, Maro Itoje, Iain Henderson and Courtney Lawes—all have significant experience of playing at 6, so could appear on the flank rather than at lock to add some extra ballast to the pack. Not only would they add ballast at the scrum, but it’s also another option at the lineout—another South African weapon.
Of these players, I think that Henderson (and now Itoje, with Alun Wyn Jones out) are more likely to appear at lock, where they will add energy and work rate with Beirne my favourite for the number 6 shirt, as he is a constant threat at the breakdown, but also has the engine and ability in the loose to be a legit threat to the Springboks—just look at his try and his perfectly weighted kick against Japan.
As we watch the upcoming matches against the United Rugby Championship sides, keep an eye on the personnel filling the blind side spot.
Depth in the back row
It’s not just the Lions who have deep options in the back row, as Japan demonstrated in this game. With their star from the World Cup Kazuki Himeno having only recently joined up with the team following the Highlanders’ Super Rugby campaign, he started this match on the bench, with captain Michael Leitch joined in the starting XV by Amanaki Mafi and Lappies Labuschagné.
Labuschagné was arguably one of the best players on the pitch for Japan, winning a number of crucial turnovers, whilst getting involved in the wide channels in attack. Neither Mafi nor captian Leith had the best of games against such a strong Lions outfit, but their quality is well known. However it was no surprise to see the Japanese attack looking more threatening once the replacements cam on in the second half, with Himeno looking extremely dangerous every time he got close to the line, and showing some really smart play all around the park. But the real surprise for me was his fellow replacement Tevita Tatafu. The 25-year-old was an absolute unit, using his size and strength to crash over the gain line with his carries, swatting off Dan Biggar with ease.
While Japan play some beautiful rugby, sometimes it appears to lack the grunt to push over the gain line and draw in the defensive line, leaving them often going sideways rather than forwards. As Japan face Ireland in the coming weeks, I would suggest that the Brave Blossoms pick a back row of Himeno, Labuschagné and Tatafu to challenge the Irish back row, with Mafi and Leitch providing experience and quality off the bench.
On a wing and a prayer
While he may have been able to celebrate a try on his British & Irish Lions debut, Duhan van der Merwe may count this as a missed chance to secure a spot in the Test team.
With the Lions playing quite a narrow defensive line, the Scottish wing found himself caught too far inside on a couple of occasions, allowing Japan to get over the gain line by going round the outside with players like Matsushima. While it never proved overly costly in this match, it’s hard to imagine that players like Makazole Mapimpi, Cheslin Kolbe and Sbu Nkosi would not take advantage of this, while a more physical Springbok centre pairing could draw the Lions’ defensive line in even narrower, leaving van der Merwe even more exposed.
Sadly, it wasn’t just the defensive positioning that proved an issue yesterday, as the giant wing also struggled under the high ball, being beaten in the air by smaller opposition on several occasions. South Africa’s march to World Cup glory (currently still the last Test they played) was built on a solid defensive effort, set piece dominance and the territorial kicking of Handré Pollard and Faf de Klerk. If a player in the back 3 is showing signs of issues under the high ball, then they will find themselves under constant pressure. Luckily the Lions have 2 fantastic players in Anthony Watson and Liam Williams who are capable of covering the entire back 3 and dangerous in the air, another wing in Josh Adams who is solid under the high ball and another elite 15in Stuart Hogg, so they have the personnel to deal with the South African kicking game. Unfortunately for van der Merwe, that will likely come at his expense.