It has not yet been decided whether the match on Saturday between the British & Irish Lions and Japan warrants Test status. It will not be known for some time, and in many ways this sums up the fixture neatly.
The first matches of Lions tours tend to act as early signposts towards the Test series, sparking debate over selection that will continue for weeks. This time, though, perhaps the overriding sense is just relief the Lions have got themselves to the start line. What happens on the pitch arguably matters less than the fact it is happening at all.
Equally, it is an entirely valid question to ask: why are the Lions playing Japan on home soil on the same day as the Premiership final? Or even: why is this tour going ahead given Covid-19 rates are spiralling in South Africa? As has been the case across the sporting spectrum over the past 18 months, the answers tend to be financial but with the Lions there is also a sense that the alternative did not bear thinking about. That despite the huge interest they generate every four years, the Lions find it increasingly hard to fight for their place in rugby’s cluttered calendar and that a cancelled tour would be a devastating blow to the institution’s future.
The captain, Alun Wyn Jones, hinted as much when he spoke of the need to “keep the tradition going”. Doubts over whether the tour would go ahead have been raging for months and are likely to follow the Lions around in the coming weeks. Staging a Lions tour amid a raging pandemic in South Africa will come to look increasingly incongruous the more Covid-19 grips the host country, and the direction of travel looks bleak.
“We hope that people will get behind the tour,” said Jones. “And the fact that we can tour, keep the tradition going, the fact that it was at risk for such a long period of time but is going ahead, hopefully that will take some of the focus away from the situation that people in South Africa and Britain are facing.”
In the past few months shifting the tour to Australia became an option, rumours of moving it to the United Arab Emirates even surfaced and a “home” tour at one stage looked the likely outcome, as nauseating as traditionalists found the idea. When the Rugby Football Union chief executive, Bill Sweeney, said in March that the home nations had “run out of runway” over a home tour, however, the prospect of cancellation moved closer. South Africa bullishly declared themselves ready to host but in reality they had no other option.
“It has been a long time,” added Jones. “Everyone was looking on with regards to: ‘Will it? Won’t it?’ It went on for so long so [to now be on the eve] of the first game … there has been a tremendous amount of effort to get it going and now it’s down to the players to get going as well.”
That was about as rabble-rousing as Jones got – no doubt in the moments before kick-off he will turn things up a notch – but there has been an air of confidence given off by the Lions of late.
The irony is that for all the Covid-19 complications they go into their opening match with preparations ticking along nicely. Unlike four years ago in New Zealand, they are unlikely to nod off on the short journey from their Edinburgh hotel to Murrayfield for their opening match.
Largely due to late arrivals there are no England players in the starting XV on Saturday but Warren Gatland insists everyone will get a start in the first three matches and an opportunity to stake their claim for a place in the Test side. Looking for early clues in that regard, Conor Murray and Dan Biggar have the chance to set their stall out as the leading half-backs but you can imagine Owen Farrell itching to make an impact in the second half.
Rarely, however, are the Lions particularly fluid in their first hit-out despite the obvious desire to put on a show in front of a crowd in their first home fixture since 2005. Japan too are rusty, having not played a Test match since they hosted the World Cup but there is the sense that they could run rings round the Lions should they click into gear. They offer a contrasting test to that which they will face in South Africa and funnily enough the Lions’ blueprint for success is probably the way that the Springboks beat Japan in the 2019 World Cup quarter-final.
“You’ve still got to play the game like a Test match,” said Jones. “You don’t want to lock yourself in but you don’t want to expose yourself either. Ultimately we’ve got the calibre of player and the players who can execute that.”