Alun Wyn Jones will lead the Lions on Saturday on a Murrayfield mission to start repaying all those who have moved heaven and earth to ensure that the 2021 tour can go ahead, amid a raging pandemic.
The veteran Wales captain is well aware of the bigger picture as he and his team-mates focus on overcoming a potentially dangerous Japan side at Scotland’s rugby HQ. Jones recognises that a herculean effort has gone in to somehow keeping this show on the road, when for so long it appeared doomed to be ruined by COVID.
The Lions have spent much of their recent history as an endangered species due to endlessly short-sighted administrative pressure and self-interest within the game’s corridors of power. But this year, the British and Irish touring team found themselves under threat on the altogether different basis of a worldwide health crisis. For several months, cancellation was a very real danger.
Alun Wyn Jones wants to repay ‘tremendous effort’ gone in to making Lions Tour happen
The Lions kick off their summer tour with their first warm-up fixture vs Japan at Murrayfield
So the fact that this warm-up fixture against Japan is happening at all is a triumph of determination against the odds. The fact that there will be a quarter-capacity crowd is also a tribute to so much hard work behind the scenes. Warren Gatland’s Lions will take on the Brave Blossoms knowing that, in the unique circumstances, they are lucky to be gearing up for a tour of South Africa.
According to Jones, the players owe so much to everyone who has given them this shot and they intend to start the repayment process on Saturday. The skipper said that prior to the squad selection last month, people were thinking ‘will it, won’t it’ and he added: ‘It has been a tremendous amount of work and effort to get it going and now it’s down to the players to get going as well.
‘There is a definite recognition of how fortunate and privileged we are to be here. There are a lot of people who have said it probably shouldn’t have gone ahead but we’re very fortunate and that resonates with the squad.’
A Lions match at home is a rare event. The last one in Cardiff 16 years ago was an uncomfortable occasion; a lucky escape to earn a 25-25 draw against under-strength Argentina. That set a stuttering tone for the subsequent tour of New Zealand, which culminated in a grim Test series whitewash at the hands of the All Blacks.
Warren Gatland will give his chosen squad their first run-out ahead of the Test matches
These openers tend to be either too close for comfort or farcical mismatches. Four years ago, still jetlagged from their long-haul journey south, the Lions scraped a 13-7 win over the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei and were swiftly condemned by the Kiwi rugby establishment as hopeless imposters. As it turned out, the result was a red herring.
In 2013, the Lions thumped the Barbarians 59-8 in a brutally humid non-contest in Hong Kong, on the way to Australia. Before that, the last South Africa tour began with a decidedly unconvincing 37-25 win over a Royal XV in front of vast swathes of empty seats in Rustenburg.
It is inevitable that Gatland’s stellar line-up for Saturday’s match will be similarly rusty, as they seek to establish new combinations in a hurry. Spending 10 days in a training camp in Jersey should have given them enough time to create an outline of their strategic plan, but the detail will take time to fine-tune. However, their opponents haven’t played together since losing to going out of their home World Cup in October, 2019, so they are bound to lack fluency and cohesion too.
Gatland has so much firepower at his disposal with Dan Biggar hoping to nail down No10 spot
Jones was asked how important it will be for the Lions to generate positive momentum before they fly to South Africa and he said: ‘It always is. There are going to be changes in the first three games, but irrespective of who takes the field, you want to get off to a good start and build momentum.
‘I’ve said a couple of things to the squad about getting the job done with regards to the basics. You can’t say we’re going to run riot.’
First and foremost, the Lions will want to avoid the jolting setback of a shock defeat. Then it is a case of building combinations, especially at half-back where Conor Murray and Dan Biggar have the experience and nous to provide control and authority.
Gatland has so much firepower at his disposal. He lost Hamish Watson and Zander Fagerson to injury and was able to replace them with Tadhg Furlong and Justin Tipuric. The Lions pack, with Iain Henderson adding clout alongside Jones and Ken Owens an influential figure at hooker, should be able to dominate the battle up front.
Jones and his side have little time to prepare but are grateful for chance to battle champions
Tadhg Beirne has an early chance to make a Test case at blindside and the whole unit will need to lay down a marker for the challenges ahead by generating the sort of ferocious physicality needed to compete with the Boks in South Africa. If they do that and the defence is organised enough after a limited preparation period, the Lions – armed with an array of talent on their bench – should be too strong for the turbo-charged Japanese.
It won’t be perfect, far from it, but Gatland will want to see signs of collective potential and a few stand-out individual auditions. Ideally, there will be a performance which sends an early warning to the Boks about what is coming their way.
There isn’t much time to mould a team capable of beating the world champions, but the Lions are grateful for the opportunity to take on that daunting assignment.