Beirne one of three to boost their Lions stock against Japan
After the months and months of anxiety, of the “will they or won’t they” and of the threat of a break with tradition, the British and Irish Lions finally got their 2021 tour of South Africa underway on Saturday, albeit on the far more familiar turf of Murrayfield.
If relief was the chief emotion as the whistle started proceedings in the historic fixture against Japan in the Scottish capital, it was quickly replaced by dismay as both Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric were early first half casualties for Warren Gatland’s side.
As important as developing chemistry and refining the game plan is in these opening salvoes of a Lions tour, avoiding injuries to key players is just as crucial, and by 15:30 on Saturday, the Lions had already lost two of their most influential players to injuries that would go on to prevent them taking their spot on the plane to South Africa.
Gatland moved swiftly, naming Conor Murray captain of the side in Jones’ absence, with Adam Beard taking his place in the squad and Josh Navidi filling in for Tipuric. Able deputies, certainly, but to lose two players who would have had extremely strong cases to be in the starting XV when the Lions take to the field for the first Test in Cape Town in just under a month’s time, their departures marred any euphoria about a winning start to Gatland’s third tour as head coach of the invitational side.
There is no like-for-like replacement for the experience and leadership that Jones brings, whilst Tipuric was the only specialist flanker in the original squad with a Lions Test to his name. Hamish Watson and Tom Curry will both have eyes on Tipuric’s spot in Gatland’s preferred XV to take on the Springboks, but neither have been on a tour previously, let alone played in a Test. A heavy burden of leadership will fall on Maro Itoje in the engine room, too.
Of course, it wasn’t all doom and gloom on Saturday and there were plenty of positives to take from the outing against Japan as well. It may have just been the first foray in a 9-game itinerary, but already players will have been jockeying for starting jerseys, with several putting their best foot forward.
Tadhg Beirne, one of three debutants to cross the whitewash, stood out with his all-round game.
If the Lions are going to look to turn the corner on the Bok defence and/or keep phases alive, Beirne’s ability as a passer and an offloader was on show on Saturday, as he looked comfortable taking contact or moving the ball from the inside and the outside of a three-man pod. His line outside of Iain Henderson for his second half try was also a prominent reminder of the athleticism that he brings to the mix.
He did well at the rear of the lineout when targeted, too, including salvaging a significantly underthrown ball in the first half. He sealed the edge well at the maul and disrupted two Japanese throws in defence.
There were some blind offloads that South Africa could well punish him for, as well as a couple of missed tackles where he was set too early and the Japanese carriers were able to evade him. All in all, however, it was an impressive performance from Beirne who did his bid for the six jersey no harm at all, not least so due to the strong showings from Japanese back rowers Pieter Labuschagne, Kazuki Himeno and Tevita Tatafu in opposition.
Both Courtney Lawes and Taulupe Faletau offered plenty from the bench following their first half replacements of Jones and Tipuric, though it was perhaps Kyle Sinckler who stole the show with the impact he was able to bring from the pine.
A surprise omission from the original squad and then only called up for this game due to Zander Fagerson’s back spasm, the Bristol Bears tighthead brought all of the energy and physicality that we have come to expect from him, during his impactful 30-minute cameo.
Like Beirne, his handling skill created space for the Lions, whilst he also showed his ability to carry the rock when asked to. His point of difference, however, was the ferocity he brought in the defensive line, though also combining that punch with some composed decision-making and reads that helped the Lions take the sting out of a surging Japanese side.
His scrum work was also strong and as an injection of impetus after a very solid 50 minutes from Tadhg Furlong, his role was greatly beneficial to the Lions. Gatland could do far worse than reuniting his starting and replacement tightheads from the 2017 tour of New Zealand for another ride next month when they take on the Springboks.
There is plenty of debate surrounding how the Lions will line up at 10-12-13 and what the game plan will be to try and unlock that well-drilled South African defence. A lot of people are calling for Owen Farrell to be at 12 outside of Dan Biggar, who had a good game at 10 on Saturday, but Bundee Aki did not shy away from showing what he is capable of as a more direct force outside of 10.
His out-to-in line off the lineout early in the first half left the Japanese defence scrambling, whilst he was a welcome pressure valve on Biggar’s shoulder when the defence was set and the line speed was good.
Furthermore, his tackles in the tight were dominant and he was a threat to get back to his feet and win the jackal on more than one occasion. He forced three turnovers in all and that is something the Lions will need to prize in South Africa next month, especially with the ball security and retention work of the Bok pack being amongst the best out there.
With the defensive skill and understanding of Robbie Henshaw at 13, any lateral mobility or tracking ability that you potentially lose with Aki in at 12 over Farrell, was shown to be minimal, albeit against a side that, on paper, should not pose as much of a threat as the Springboks.
Ultimately, the decision at 12 will come down to a philosophy call from Gatland in terms of what it is he believes the Lions will need to do in order to beat South Africa, but Aki has shown he is a genuine option, even if many are pencilling Farrell into the 12 jersey on the assumption Biggar may start at 10.
Nevertheless, it is still early days for the Lions and, unfortunately, there will be more injuries to come. They, even more so than form, will shape the final XV that Gatland opts for.
For now, though, the trio of Beirne, Sinckler and Aki have all made statements as to why they should continue to be heavily involved for the Lions as the tour begins in earnest next week when Gatland and his charges arrive in Johannesburg.
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