Lions v Japan: Duhan van der Merwe against the brilliant Kotaro Matsushima in an intriguing match-up

Rugby-playing leopards may sometimes change their spots, but it’s rare for them to do so. Looking at the Lions’ back division for today’s match against Japan doesn’t suggest that Warren Gatland has any intention of playing the Japanese at their own game which features speed of thought and foot, speed at releasing the ball from the breakdown, and getting it wide as quickly as possible.

Duhan van der Merwe practises his bull juggling during a training session at BT Murrayfield ahead of the British & Irish Lions' match against Japan. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Duhan van der Merwe practises his bull juggling during a training session at BT Murrayfield ahead of the British & Irish Lions' match against Japan. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

That was the game that they played so daringly and beautifully in the first half of their World Cup match against Scotland, when indeed they showed that they can play the handling game better than most, and every bit as well as anybody.

Well, it’s usually sensible not to play your opponents at their own game. So Gatland has Dan Biggar and Conor Murray at half-back. Biggar is more expansive than he used to be. He makes half-breaks and passes well. But his first instinct is to kick the ball, to boot it high in the air and give chase. Even his critics, of whom there are quite a few in Wales, recognise that he does this very well indeed. Meanwhile, his scrum-half partner, Murray, is the box-kicker supreme, tormenting wing three-quarters or anyone covering back. Murray has done much to make Johnny Sexton the player he is, because over the years he has very seldom shipped on bad ball to him.

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Then in the centre Gatland has paired Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw, both masters of the bullocking game. They will, one assumes, both be expected to breach the gain-line and put Japan on the back foot. Both are likely to do this very well. Henshaw however has a much wider range of talents – he was, I thought, the outstanding centre in this year’s Six Nations – and since he is equally comfortable at 12 and 13 will surely be a Test match starter if his form holds up.

Kotaro Matsushima evades Stuart Hogg during Japan's win over Scotland at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Picture: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
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Then on the left-wing Gatland has Scotland’s new powerhouse, Duhan van der Merwe. The match-up against the speedy and brilliantly talented Kotaro Matsushima, fresh from the French Top 14, is intriguing. It is also a good test, and perhaps learning experience, for van der Merwe, in view of the pacy and elusive wings South Africa can field. So far DvdM’s defence against a quick-footed and elusive opponent has been, to put it politely, more than a little suspect.

Josh Adams on the other flank is arguably the best all-round wing the Lions have, and this may not indeed be far from the back-line for the first South African Test, though I suppose Owen Farrell is more likely than Aki to be at 12 then.

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Japan can surely expect to endure an aerial bombardment in at least the early stages of the match, and also to be subjected to much hard driving from the Lions forwards with Rory Sutherland, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson and Alun Wyn Jones himself to the fore. It all sounds rather as if the Japanese are going to experience South African-style rugby, though one hopes that Gatland and Gregor Townsend as attack coach have a few surprises in store for us as well as for the Japanese. One wonders after all whether it’s the best idea to play South Africa at their own power-and-kicking game. Then one reflects that, brilliantly as the Lions often played in provincial matches when Gregor was their fly-half in 1997, they actually played a much more limited game in the Tests to win the series 2-1.

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It’s a pity that Zander Fagerson and Hamish Watson should have had to drop out after being named for today’s game, and so won’t have the opportunity to wear the Lions jersey at Murrayfield, but one trusts that Ali Price will get a run in the second half, and that there are no injuries to end any player’s tour before the plane takes off.

Meanwhile, a sheaf of announcements from the SRU over the past few days has been unusually full of good news with calendars of matches for the semi-pro Super6, the amateur club game and the schools. It is even possible to hope that with the vast majority of the population having been vaccinated, it will be possible to treat even a new variant of the wretched Covid more like seasonal flu than a plague which requires lockdown and hibernation; and that, consequently, we may enjoy a normal rugby season, with spectators on the touch-line or sitting in the stand. That said, one can’t alas avoid the fear that a Government which is both authoritarian and nervous may suddenly clamp down again on outdoor activities as winter looms.

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