THE IRISH INFLUENCE was strong as the 2021 Lions got up and running with a promising four-try victory over Japan at Murrayfield, but the win came with an immense toll.
Tadhg Beirne and Josh Adams celebrates the Irishman’s try. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Captain Alun Wyn Jones’s tour is over, head coach Warren Gatland has confirmed, while openside flanker Justin Tipuric’s is now in doubt.
Jones suffered a dislocated shoulder after just seven minutes, ending his tour, while Tipuric also sustained a shoulder issue that requires scans. Jones will be definitely replaced and Gatland will appoint a new captain, with an update expected tomorrow morning.
They are major setbacks, although much of what the Lions did in Edinburgh today will have satisfied head Gatland, who can’t have been anything but impressed with his Irish Lions.
Bundee Aki, Tadhg Beirne, and Jack Conan – who went off with 10 minutes left due to hamstring tightness – were particularly outstanding while Conor Murray, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, and Robbie Henshaw all had excellent games too. All seven did their Test hopes plenty of good.
Meanwhile, out-half Dan Biggar used his audition in the number 10 shirt to superb effect, with Gatland opting to send Owen Farrell on at inside centre in the second half in what may be a hint of future plans.
The Lions’ maul was strong and their attack clicked in a few exciting passages, most notably for Beirne’s wonderful second-half try, but they understandably had a few cohesion issues too, as would be expected in their first game together.
Henshaw powered over for a first-half try, while wing pair Josh Adams and Duhan van der Merwe also crossed, and Biggar was 100% off the tee for the Lions.
Josh Adams scored the Lions’ opening try. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Japan, who now move on to a clash with Andy Farrell’s Ireland in Dublin next weekend, did look short of top-level exposure, having last played a Test at the 2019 World Cup, but they still brought their characteristic invention and never stopped playing.
The Lions fly out for South Africa tomorrow and will hope the injury news isn’t as bad as first feared, but Gatland and his coaching staff have plenty to work with here as the tour gets underway.
Jamie Joseph’s Japan were lively in the opening exchanges as their width caused the Lions some stress and then Gatland’s men suffered that early blow of losing Jones to his worrying injury – it looked like a dislocated shoulder.
Conan had started superbly, however, winning three turnovers in the opening nine minutes and the Lions drew first blood as they fired from a right-hand side lineout on the Japan 22 in the 13th minute.
Aki made a thunderous carry over the gainline on a brilliant line after Henderson played the ball off the top of the lineout, before a series of narrow carries concluded with Murray passing to right wing Adams in the shortside, where the Wales wing easily beat Siosaia Fifita and stretched out to score.
Biggar converted and then saved Murray’s hide off the restart as he reacted well to his scrum-half’s attempted clearing kick being blocked down. The Lions soon needed an excellent Aki breakdown turnover to lift more pressure in their 22.
Murray and Henshaw combined for the latter’s first-half try. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Their second try came at the end of a wild passage of play just before the quarter mark, Biggar swinging the ball wide right to Adams and then left wing Duhan van der Merwe popping up to snipe down the three-metre shortside to score untouched.
Tipuric departed injured soon after Biggar’s conversion had made it 14-0, but that loss didn’t stop the Lions’ slow as they bagged a third try. This time, their close-range maul dragged in Japanese defenders before Murray passed left to Henshaw running an aggressive short line to batter through opposite number Timothy Lafaele to dot down.
The Lions’ expected lack of cohesion was obvious in the remainder of the opening half and Japan finished it on the attack but Biggar and Aki combined for one of their side’s man choke tackle turnovers to keep the 21-0 lead intact at the break.
Another Aki breakdown turnover gave the Lions a platform in the Japan 22 early in the second half and after Conan came close to scoring – Liam Williams had just knocked the ball on – a second possible effort was ruled out when Courtney Lawes knocked-on over the tryline, Tadhg Furlong’s relentless carry having given him a chance to finish.
The fourth try arrived in the 49th minute, however, as Biggar picked out Beirne running a superb line in midfield and the Munster man scorched home to show his athleticism.
But Japan finally struck back heading towards the final quarter as the superb replacement back row Kazuki Himeno darted left from a dummy maul set-up and rode two tackles to power his way over.
Tadhg Beirne celebrates his second-half try. Source: ©INPHO
Rather oddly, Japan then opted for a couple of penalty shots at goal, with out-half Yu Tamura slotting the second of them to draw the scoreline back to 28-10 as the game ticked towards the closing 10 minutes.
Japan probed for a second try in the dying stages but the Lions’ defence held firm.