THE good news is that the Lions looked sharp and organised, with several players really stepping up to the mark, for at least the first 60 minutes of this match. The bad news is that tour captain Alun Wyn Jones suffered a suspected dislocated shoulder in just the seventh minute of the match, which could have a huge ramifications on how the tourists shape up for their three match Test series against the world champion Springboks this summer.
If the stated purposes of this match was to start building the game-plan against live opposition and to give a first tranche of players a chance to lay down a marker for the Test series, then the unspoken imperative was to emerge from the match with no new serious injuries. Of all the players the Lions didn’t want to lose, their skipper would have been pretty near the top of the list, so when the famously durable 35-year-old stayed on the deck – clearly in pain – after being cleared out of a ruck by opposite number James Moore it was a heart in mouth moment.
He appeared to be struggling to move the limb as he was treated on the pitch, and looked concerned as he made his way to the touchline for further assessment and treatment. In such a condensed tour, even a couple of weeks out could be a major complicating factor. If his shoulder is dislocated then the second-rows on the standby list should not stray too far away from their mobile phones.
As he collected the 1882 Cup at the end of the match, Wyn Jones had his left hand tucked into his training-top pocket and the arm remained motionless, but there was no official update at the time of publication. The team fly out to South Africa tomorrow evening.
If the Lions were reeling from the loss of their skipper, they didn’t let it show, and snatched the lead just five minutes later from a compelling thrust which was ignited by Bundee Aki exploding through midfield off first-phase line-out ball, Robbie Henshaw then sucked in three defenders, before Josh Adams danced home.
Not to be outdone, Duhan van der Merwe made his way across to Adams’ wing and took advantage of Japan failing to guard the short side, picking up from the base of a ruck and cantering home unchallenged.
The Scottish winger, who is returning to the land of his birth this summer, worked hard to get himself into the game, and threatened several times with ball in hand, but his defensive positioning remains a concern.
Lions suffered another injury set-back when Justin Tipuric had to be replaced on 21 minutes, but the team kept motoring forward and Henshaw powered over for try number three just a minute later.
Japan had their first real period of pressure at the end of the opening 40, opting to run a couple of breakdown penalties instead of go for the three points, but the Lions held out and eventually snuffed out threat with a choke tackle, which was a profitable tactic for Gatland’s side throughout the game.
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Jack Conan thought he had got his name on the score-sheet early on the second half after latching onto a chip ahead, but Liam Williams had knocked on a few second earlier as he tried to gather the kick. Then Courtney Lawes had a try chalked off when he rolled out of a tackle and over the line, but the TMO identified that he lost control of the ball as he grounded it.
Finally, in the eighth minute of the second half, the Lions made all that pressure count on the scoreboard when Tadhg Beirne burst from midfield and thundered home from 30 yards.
With a commanding 28-0 lead, the challenge now for the Lions was to keep their shape and not be sucked into a messy race for points, and with both sides clearing their bench as we approached the hour mark, it did get a bit scrappy for a while.
Japan capitalised when Kazuki Himeno peeled round the tail of a line-out and shrugged off a Toby Faletau tackle to score his team’s first points of the match. Yu Tamura converted and added a penalty eight minutes later to make 28-10.
The Lions played the last 12 minutes with 14 men when Conan came off after all the subs had been used and they dropped out of the game a bit. Apart from one promising attack which featured Scots scrum-half Ali Price off the bench, the momentum was all Japan.
Kotaro Matsushima was a handful on the right wing, Himeno was held up over the line and Anthony Watson had to be quick on his feet to tidy up a Tamura toe-poke into the Lions in-goal area, but the Lions held out for a comfortable win.
In form Dan Biggar was named man-of-the-match after a public vote and he certainly laid down a marker for Finn Russell and Owen Farrell in the battle for the No10 shirt. Meanwhile, the Irish centres were formidable in attack and defence, Liam Williams demonstrated that Stuart Hogg is not guaranteed the full-back slot, and both wings looked dangerous.
In the pack, Tadhg Berne impressed, the industrious and mobileConan showed why he was a wildcard pick for the tour, Iain Henderson was a Test-match second-row, Ken Owens led from the front after Wyn Jones’ departure, Tadhg Furlong was immense at tight-head and Rory Sutherland worked hard in his first game-time in almost three months.
Nobody painted themselves in as a definite Test starter, but they all hit a standard which the next group of players will have to play well to match.
Lions: L Williams (A Watson 64); J Adams, R Henshaw, B Aki (O Farrell 54), D van der Merwe; D Biggar, C Murray (A Price 62); R Sutherland (W Jones 51), K Owens (J George 54), T Furlong (K Sinckler 51), I Henderson, AW Jones (C Lawes 7), T Beirne, J Tipuric (T Faletau 21), J Conan.
Japan: R Yamanaka; K Matsushima, T Lafaele, R Nakamura, S Fifita; Y Tamura, K Shigeno (N Saito 49); K Inagaki (C Millar 53), A Sakate, J Koo (A Valu 49), W van der Walt (J Cornelsen 60), J Moore, M Leitch (K Himeno 49), L Labuschagne, A Mafi (T Tatafu 49).
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France)
Lions: Tries: Adams, Van der Merwe, Henshaw, Beirne; Cons: Biggar 4.
Japan: Try: Himeno; Con: Tamura; Pen: Tamura.
Scoring sequence (Lions first): 5-0; 7-0; 12-0; 14-0; 19-0; 21-0 (h-t) 26-0; 28-0; 28-5; 28-7; 28-10.