Monday, June 28, 2021

LIONS-28 JAPAN-10

THE BIGGAR THEY ARE


I couldn’t possibly start harping on this Lions series without first giving my overall thoughts on it. And when I say “overall” I mean it, because over all my opinions about the actual matches themselves and the makeup of the test team, I really don’t think the series should actually go ahead at all. Even though most of us are far from medical experts, we’ve all been given a crash course in the basics surrounding COVID19 over the past year or so and when the news broke that the Springbok squad had a few positive results, it did not look good. And after a bit of research showed just how far behind they were down there with vaccinations and such, it looked even worse. Still, as long as that show is going on, so must this one, since I have to assume the decisions to play on are for the right reasons. As long as there are matches, I will continue to cover them within reason and to be fair, this match in Murrayfield on Saturday was a great way to get the ball rolling all things considered. Although the Lions are the cream of the crop from four proud rugby nations, it can never be easy to get them all together and playing to their full potential from the word go, but that said, given that this is far from Warren’s first rodeo, we shouldn’t be all that surprised that his first match selection from this group would do so well in what was essentially a “game of two halves”, either side of the 50th minute. Before that time, we saw a starting XV that played to it’s strengths, played with cohesion, tried a few interesting things we might see in the test series, and most of all survived a couple of tragic injuries. With no disrespect meant to Justin Tipuric, the more devastating blow was of course the loss after just 7 minutes of the talismanic tour skipper Alun Wyn Jones. For that final half hour, I think it would be unfair to say that we “collapsed” or even "took our foot off the pedal"; it was more a case that the introduction of the remainder of our bench coincided with a purple patch for the Brave Blossoms, one which they thoroughly deserved as they had been unlucky not to have scored up to that point. Obviously my interest on these pages is going to tend to centre around the Irish players. Player of the Match may have gone to Dan Biggar, and deservedly so as he controlled the play extremely well and also knocked over some trademark effortless conversions from the touchline, but I really don’t think it would be too “green goggled” of me to point out that for the most part our contingent had really good outings in Murrayfield. No better place to start than the centre. Many eyebrows were raised at Bundee Aki’s selection for the squad but to be honest, when you consider how the coach likes to play plus his successful history with Robbie going way back, it really was no surprise and their partnership was key to much of the Lions success both with and without the ball. Only three minutes were on the clock when they attempted the first choke tackle and while the ball managed to escape Robbie’s clutches, they went back for more at latter stages and forced turnovers several times. Then in actual possession well it was always going to be crash, bang, wollop wasn’t it, and although at times the Japanese defence looked tidy enough, our 12/13 combo were generally able to put us on the front foot and after just 11 minutes, an attacking lineout was won by Iain Henderson (ably taking over the calling duties from his captain) allowing Bundee to barge his way to within 5m of the line before Josh Adams finished the job in determined fashion. Not long afterwards Japan, who to their credit were keen to play rather than kick possession away more often than not especially in exits, threw one pass too many into the grateful arms of Henshaw and he didn’t hesitate in setting us up for another score. We moved their defence back and forth across the pitch before Duhan van der Merwe delighted his “home” crowd by spotting a lack of pillar at a breakdown out wide to run through the gap and dot down. I’m not even close to being done with praising the Irish players - next up, Jack Conan. Another who didn’t appear on many predicted lists but from start to finish he played like he had worn the Lions jersey for years. Multiple strong carries, jackled the penalty which put us back into their 22 before Henshaw’s steamrolling line got us try number three, and most significantly of all, played for about an hour after Tipuric’s misfortune at number 8 alongside Toby Faletau, whom many assume has an inside track for the test jumper. Had to be running Biggar close for his gong. So there the Lions were 21-0 ahead before a half hour was gone on the clock but to be fair that didn’t really tell the entire story. Like I said, although this was Japan’s first full test outing since RWC2019, they played with a lot of confidence and definitely deserved to get their side of the scoreboard moving long before the 58th minute. But more often than not they were thwarted by a tight defensive structure from the Lions, one that might have taken some risks by playing narrow and having the likes of Bundee Aki taking gambles trying to cut out long passes, but still were generally well able to half the visitors’ progress and force them into mistakes. There was definitely an air of inevitability around the Lions 4th try. Again I must credit Jamie Joseph’s men for being so positive with possession but their decision to grubber their way out of their 22 after the second half restart was always going to be a massive gamble and it was one that the Lions were able to punish. It took us a few bites down at their end to get a touch down over the line that counted. First Jack Conan thought he had scored only to be brought back as Liam Williams had knocked on moments before. Then after a monster carry by Tadhg Furlong, Courtney Lawes seemed to get it down yet the TMO showed he didn’t have full control. Eventually after Tamura tried to clear his lines it only went as far as Williams who had space to set things up nicely and here is probably where Biggar cemented his award as his missile of a pass found a brilliant line by yet another rampaging Irishman in Tadhg Beirne who took it in his stride and accelerated to the line. As an actual contest, the match was pretty much over at this stage but shortly after the score, when Conor Murray kicked out on the full (he had been steady up to this point to be fair and I totally see the sense in his selection to captain the remainder of the tour) we saw Japan really start to kick into gear. They had this really clever lineout play where the dart was arced just over the tail right into the grateful arms of the pacy Matsushima and his gain got them down to the Lions end of the pitch long enough for Himeno to eventually break their duck by getting over the line. I thought it was interesting that Japan chose to take three point opportunities after that score - I wonder if it was to nudge them ahead in the second half as if it began 0-0? Anyway their outhalf Tamura was successful with his second attempt and the match kind of fizzled out from there. You can’t really blame the players for easing up a tad with just a couple of days left before takeoff. One final thought on Japan, they really did impress at times and definitely gave Andy Farrell a lot to think about as he prepares his Lions-less squad to face them next Saturday. That should be a very interesting summer test and I will be giving that a lot more of my attention than I will the “battle of the Lions” in Jo’burg. But despite my negative inclinations towards this tour, this particular 80 minutes represented a decent way to kick if off and should the entire series play out we got plenty of evidence that we’re well capable of giving the World Champions a run for their money. Sorry the writeup is shorter than usual but these have been busy times here at Harpin Manor. Planning another “quiz type” podcast during the week so stay tuned for that (and check out the last one ICYMI) and we’ll have all our regular coverage next weekend with the Under 20s also in the mix on Thursday. JLP

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019