Japan on Saturday is “the hardest opening game of any Lions Tour” believes Gregor Townsend as the British and Irish Lions headed north for their historic match at BT Murrayfield.
The Lions were forced into a second change to the original team on Thursday before leaving training camp in Jersey. Zander Fagerson joined Scotland colleague Hamish Watson in withdrawing, this time due to back spasms.
Like all the squad, the tight-head prop will play in one of the first three games of the tour if fit, but the first game is usually an awkward proposition for any Lions team, Townsend pointed out.
‘The first game on every tour is usually tough’
🚨 Member announcement!
Introducing the Brave Blossoms that are set to take in the British and Irish Lions 🦁 this Saturday in a first ever meet between the two teams.
— Japan Rugby (@JRFURugby) June 24, 2021
“I don’t know the stats, but I think the first game on every tour – whether it’s the game in 2005 against Argentina or the first game on actually on tour – is usually tough,” said the Scotland head coach, who is Warren Gatland’s senior deputy with the Lions.
“They are usually not big wins. Or if they have been, it’s been all the points in the last 10 minutes. The first game in New Zealand last time was a tight one. I remember 2009, Mike Blair played in that game, he has not the best memories of it.
“Even in 1997 we beat Eastern Province comfortably in the end. But I am sure it was about 10-all with 20 minutes to go.
“Those first games are tough because it’s the first time we’ve come together. The teams that we’re playing against have usually been preparing for a while.
“This must be the hardest opening game of any Lions tour. It’s a team that will move us around, it’s a quality international side.
“That Argentina game in 2005 (when the Lions sneaked a draw in Cardiff) it was their second team that played. But this is primarily the team that got to the quarter-final of the World Cup.”
Principles of whole tour to be set on Saturday
Rust and certain miscommunications are inevitable on Saturday, believes Townsend. But the principles of the whole tour – although South Africa and Japan are very different opponents – are what the coaching team want to see set.
“We want to see what we have worked on in training, transferred to a team environment,” he said. “Our training is game based so we are already up to speed with that.
“I want to see the players making decisions and taking their opportunities. We have formed close bonds in a few ways – some from having a few drinks and some from working really hard on the training field out in Jersey.
“But I believe the best way is playing together – going through some tough times in games, finding a way to win and then being in the changing room after having achieved something together.”
The Lions’ overall plan seems to be to play with pace, and given that’s Japan’s preference as well, it should make for plenty entertainment this weekend.
“We are aware that it is really important to play with speed, to move teams around, so that when we get to the test series (with South Africa) we can play more than one way,” added Townsend.
“We’re aware of things might not go perfectly as a first outing. So if something is not working we can change it and start to press on the things that are working.”
‘It’s brilliant that it’s in Scotland’
Obviously the game at Murrayfield is special for Townsend, and his entire family bar one will be there. Eldest son Christian is playing at 10 for Scotland Under-20 against England this weekend.
“I’m sure my mum and dad will be proud – and the rest of my family who are there. It’s brilliant that it’s in Scotland. People close to you can go and watch the game and it’s a real thrill to have fans back.
“We’ve seen the impact here in Jersey of the Lions. The number of people who came to watch open training sessions, there’s been a real buzz.
“We don’t get to experience that usually in a Lions year. It’s the people who go out on tour in their thousands who come back saying what a great experience that was. They become Lions supporters for life.
“So to be able to create that same impact and effect in Edinburgh when we come to play at Murrayfield should only be a positive.”