The Brave Blossoms face the British & Irish Lions at BT Murrayfield on Saturday 26 June


Japan coach Jamie Joseph on facing the Lions 2021

Japan’s game against the British & Irish Lions is a one-off opportunity for my players to play one of the most famous rugby teams in the world, writes Jamie Joseph. And from a personal point of view, it brings back some great memories from 1993 when I played against the Lions just about every week for six weeks.

I started off that tour playing for the Maori All Blacks in Wellington, a game we lost after being 20 points up, before heading down to Dunedin where I played for Otago in a 37-24 win.

The first Test, a week later, saw Grant Fox kick a goal right on full-time before we were well beaten in the second Test. I remember the coaches saying after that defeat that careers could be lost if we didn’t win the third Test, so it was a relief to win that one 30-13.

Ben Clarke attacks for the Lions in the second Test against New Zealand in 1993 (Getty Images)

What struck me back then was that there were so many great players in the Lions team. At the start of the tour, Mike Teague and Dean Richards were considered the top loose forwards with Perter Winterbottom. But then Ben Clarke played really well and came through and had a massive tour.

I also remember Wade Dooley having to go home and then Martin Johnson comes up, so as always when one door closes another door of opportunity gets presented to a team or player.

The thing about a Lions tour is that the previous time they were in New Zealand, I was only 13 years old. But you know you’re playing the best from the four countries involved, there’s a lot of history and always a lot of support for them, so it’s really special. And as they don’t tour enough, some young players may never experience facing them.

Thankfully Japan have now reached the level where they have been considered a worthy opponent, and it’s going to be a tremendous occasion for the players.

Jamie Joseph on facing the Lions

Jamie Joseph oversees a Japan training session (AFP/Getty Images)

We haven’t played since the 2019 Rugby World Cup. And because of the lack of rugby through Covid, both internationally and domestically, it was important we tried to keep the nucleus of the squad the same as before, so they could pass on all of the hard stuff and learnings.

One of the reasons we did so well at the last World Cup was because our team culture was so strong and things were player-led, and if those players weren’t there we would have to start all over again. So it’s great to have the likes of Michael Leitch, Lappies Labuschagne and Yu Tamura back in the fold.

Having said that, we need some of the younger guys to come through as we look towards the World Cup in 2023. There are certain positions where we need to see if the players can handle the intensity of not just the games but the preparation blocks.

Having this game is essential as it allows us to make the reconnection as a squad between coaches and players. While we’ve all been doing our own stuff, with the players finally back in Top League and my coaching team working with Super Rugby sides for example, we are realists and know we will have minimal preparation time.

We can’t expect to carry on where we left off, but we need a starting point and this match at Murrayfield on 26 June is a great opportunity for that.

The first Test for any side is usually full of mistakes, so that provides an opportunity for us. And the second thing in our favour is that the Lions will be looking to do things that they need to get right to beat South Africa. And the way we play will be very different.

The pressure will be squarely on the Lions as they are up against a side that hasn’t played or trained together for well over a year and a half.

And who knows, if we can create a bit of history then maybe one day Japan can get to host a Lions game. After all, the experience of the World Cup in 2019 shows we can host anything.

This article originally appeared in the June 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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