All you need to know about the 1888 Cup fixture at BT Murrayfield

British & Irish Lions v Japan Preview

In some ways it feels like we’ve been waiting forever for the British & Irish Lions 2021 tourists to spring into action, what with all the ‘will they, won’t they, where will they’ debates centred around the pandemic. In others it has sped into view, with the end of this strange season (two seasons in one really) seemingly playing out on fast-forward.

Whichever way you look at it, it’s now here, it’s arrived. Warren Gatland’s squad begin their bid to topple the world champions with a warm-up match against Japan at BT Murrayfield on Saturday afternoon. This will be a Lions tour like no other and it starts like no other!

Yet for all that is unique, the links to the Lions legacy are evident. Half the squad have toured before, Gatland is taking charge of the Lions for a third time, fellow coaches Neil Jenkins and Gregor Townsend were part of the victorious 1997 series in South Africa

It’s the spirit of 1997 that the Lions of 2021 will be keen to harness as they prepare to take on the Springboks in their own backyard – and for an insight into that spirit they need only look towards Melrose.

That is where a group of 1997 Lions start their trek to Murrayfield – all in aid of a team-mate from that tour, Doddie Weir. Simon Shaw, Alan Tait and Rob Wainwright are amongst a group of former rugby players walking the 30-plus miles on the eve of the Japan match to raise money for the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation.

The charity funds research into Motor Neurone Disease (MND), which Weir now suffers from, and his former team-mates have tied this fundraiser to the 2021 Lions’ first match – you can donate via Just Giving.

Those former Lions will no doubt be eager to see what the current crop will deliver, both against Japan and in South Africa. Below we have all the details you need to know about this first match.


What’s the big team news?

There are six new ‘Lions’ in the first 2021 line-up – wingers Josh Adams and Duhan van der Merwe, centre Bundee Aki, prop Rory Sutherland and back-rowers Tadhg Beirne and Jack Conan.

There would have been another two but Scots Hamish Watson (concussion) and Zander Fagerson (back spasm) were ruled out and replaced by 2017 tourists Justin Tipuric and Tadhg Furlong.

There are no England players in the starting XV. Seven of the Englishmen in the squad only arrived after last weekend’s club matches and four are involved in the Gallagher Premiership final with Exeter on Saturday evening, so it’shouldn’t be a surprise. And there are five on the bench.

Despite not having played at international level since the 2019 Rugby World Cup, there is a familiar look to the Japan team, with two thirds of the starters from their quarter-final against the Springboks also lining up in shirts one to 15 in Edinburgh and only one debutant in the side.

Star wing Kenki Fukuoka has retired to pursue a medical career so Siosaia Fifita makes his debut. Hooker Shota Horie and scrum-half Yutaka Nagare – both key figures at RWC 2019 – are not part of the travelling squad so Atsushi Sakate wears the No 2 shirt and Kaito Shigeno is at nine.

Another three players – Craig Millar, Jack Cornelsen and Naoto Saito – are set to make their Brave Blossoms debuts from the bench while Kazuki Himeno is also amongst the replacements having only flown in from New Zealand, where he was playing for the Highlanders in the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final, this week.

Aware of the dominance the Lions will be looking for at the set-piece, Japan have also opted for a six-two split between forwards and backs on the bench.

What have the coaches said?

Lions head coach Warren Gatland: “We want to play a game plan against Japan where we feel we can be successful, but also keeping in mind that we are preparing towards South Africa as well. So there are two things, we are trying to cover off both challenges.

“They are World Cup quarter-finalists so you have to respect what they have achieved in recent years. We go in expecting a tough encounter. We know we will be a little bit rusty.”

Japan head coach Jamie Joseph: “There’s really an ‘us’ team focus, because the team hasn’t been together for such a long time and we don’t want to complicate things.

“We want them to have an understanding of what their jobs are in our game plan, then those guys have the best chance of performing to their potential, particularly the guys who haven’t played Test rugby before.

“When you’re playing against teams of this calibre, it’s about getting the basics right. We’re confident in our game plan but we also understand the Lions will have moments where they put us under pressure. And a big part is how players respond to that pressure.”

Any interesting statistics?

  • There will be 16,500 spectators at BT Murrayfield – a reduced crowd due to Covid restrictions but a crowd nonetheless!
  • Japan are just the eighth Test nation to play the Lions, following Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as well as Argentina, Canada, Fiji and France as opponents of the tourists.
  • The two teams are playing for a new trophy – the 1888 Cup, named after the first year the Lions toured.
  • This is the first home game the Lions have played since 2005, when they drew 25-25 with Argentina.

Related: Remembering the last Lions home game

What time does it kick off and is it on TV?

British & Irish Lions v Japan, Saturday 26 June, BT Murrayfield

The match kicks off at 3pm and will be broadcast live on Channel 4. You can also listen live on talkSPORT.

France’s Pascal Gauzere has the whistle for this match in Edinburgh – and it will be his final Test as a referee because he is retiring after this fixture.

Lions v Japan

This will be Pascal Gauzere’s last Test as a referee (Getty Images)

He will be assisted by an all-French team for his last outing, with Pierre Brousset and Ludovic Cayre his assistants and Erix Gauzins the Television Match Official.

What are the Lions v Japan line-ups?

British & Irish Lions: Liam Williams; Josh Adams, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Duhan van der Merwe; Dan Biggar, Conor Murray; Rory Sutherland, Ken Owens, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Tadhg Beirne, Justin Tipuric, Jack Conan.

Replacements: Jamie George, Wyn Jones, Kyle Sinckler, Courtney Lawes, Taulupe Faletau, Ali Price, Owen Farrell, Anthony Watson.

Japan: Ryohei Yamanaka; Kotaro Matsushima, Timothy Lafaele, Ryoto Nakamura, Siosaia Fifita; Yu Tamura, Kaito Shigeno; Keita Inagaki, Atsushi Sakate, Ji-won Koo, Wimpie van der Walt, James Moore, Michael Leitch (captain), Lappies Labuschagne, Amanaki Mafi.

Replacements: Kosuke Horikoshi, Craig Millar, Asaeli Ai Valu, Jack Cornelsen, Kazuki Himeno, Tevita Tatafu, Naoto Saito, Rikiya Matsuda.

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