The British & Irish Lions warmed up for their tour of South Africa with a victory over Japan in a match overshadowed by a potential tour-ending injury to captain Alun Wyn Jones.
Gameflow: The Lions would have been pleased with the way that they started this match, running up a 21-0 lead after 23 minutes, but would have been disappointed that they could not drive home their advantage in the second half for a bigger scoreline.
Japan looked rusty in the first half and could not deal with the Lions’ big ball carries, with Jack Conan, Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and wings Josh Adams and Duhan van der Merwe, all making some bruising carries.
It was noticeable, however, that the Lions did not commit as many numbers to the breakdown and had a very narrow defence, which Japan at times looked to exploit and could definitely be capitalised on by the Springboks. It was particularly noticeable that Japan’s breaks came down Van der Merwe’s wing, which suggests a defensive weakness there.
Japan did start the brighter of the two teams as they ran the ball from all areas of the field and managed a couple of half-breaks through wing Kotaro Matsushima.
However, as soon as Adams opened the scoring with a fine finish in the corner, the Lions never looked like they would relinquish their lead. Duhan van der Merwe went over soon after when, with some quick thinking, he sniped up the blindside and went over untouched.
Henshaw and flank Tadhg Beirne scored either side of half time to all but assure the result as the Lions took a 28-0 lead.
The Lions rang the changes in the second half, which caused them to lose a bit of their momentum and Japan were able to see a bit more ball and territory.
This eventually paid off as Kazuki Himeno, who played for the Highlanders in Super Rugby, scored from a five-metre lineout. Tamura added a penalty to add further respect to the scoreline.
The Lions were forced to play the final 10 minutes with 14 men, as Jack Conan was forced off, but the substitution appeared to be purely precautionary and they held on for a 28-10 win.
Big blow: While Lions head coach Warren Gatland would have been relatively happy over the manner of his team’s victory and their first-half performance, there will undoubtedly be concern over their tour captain.
When Alun Wyn Jones left the field in the seventh minute, disappointment was written all over his face. The Lions also lost flank Justin Tipuric after he took a blow at the breakdown in the 20th minute and had to be substituted. The Welshman looked as disconsolate as his captain when he trudged off the field.
It was reported at half time that both had picked up shoulder injuries, with Jones apparently suffering a dislocation, which would force him out of the tour in what would be a massive blow just before they depart for South Africa.
Players who shone: The Lions certainly showed their physicality in this match, with inside centre Bundee Aki playing excellently with some strong carries laying a platform for his side.
It was definitely a debutants day as wings Josh Adams and Duhan van der Merwe, as well as flank Tadhg Beirne, all scored tries in their first appearances for the Lions.
Halfback pair Conor Murray and Dan Biggar controlled the game excellently for the Lions in the first half.
For Japan, Lappies Labuschagne, prop Keita Inagaki and substitute flank Kazuki Himeno all had a good impact. Kotaro Matsushima looked the most dangerous of Japan’s backs, making 16 carries and running over 100 metres.
British & Irish Lions – 15 Liam Williams, 14 Josh Adams, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Duhan van der Merwe, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Tadhg Beirne, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Ian Henderson, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rory Sutherland.
Subs: 16 Jamie George, 17 Wyn Jones, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Courtney Lawes, 20 Taulupe Faletau, 21 Ali Price, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Anthony Watson.
Japan – 15 Ryohei Yamanaka, 14 Kotaro Matsushima, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Ryoto Nakamura, 11 Siosaia Fifita, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Kaito Shigeno, 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Lappies Labuschagne, 6 Michael Leitch, 5 James Moore, 4 Wimpie van der Walt, 3 Koo Ji-won, 2 Atsushi Sakate, 1 Keita Inagaki.
Subs: 16 Kosuke Horikoshi, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Asaeli Ai Valu, 19 Jack Cornelsen, 20 Kazuki Himeno, 21 Tevita Tatafu, 22 Naoto Saito, 23 Rikiya Matsuda.