Imagine my face, staring at the fixture list for sport this weekend after my first week living in Cardiff. The Rugby, the Football, the drama... If you listened carefully, you could hear my lover's suppressed wailing, knowing that after this weekend, it was unlikely to be the same ever again. Alas, here we finally were. No more speculation, no more in-fighting, just home nations coming together to get behind some big fellas up in Scotland. How did those chunky chaps get on?
Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric
All jokes have to be put aside as Alun Wyn Jones' injury was heart breaking. After all that build up, all of his achievements and all of the work he's personally put in over the last 15 years, to have his moment snatched away so soon is nothing any Rugby fan would want to see. Just 7 minutes was all it took to alter the rest of the tour entirely, and now with confirmation of Jones' dislocated shoulder, it's slightly worrying to understand what this does for the rest of his career. If that wasn't enough, in the same half we saw Tipuric limp from the field and also straight out of the Lions setup. Another person who seemed like a set-in-stone starter, gone from play almost immediately. Both guys definitely deserve so much better, but I'm delighted for Beard and Navidi to get call ups too. I know the press will slate Gatland for overlooking Gray and a currently-injured James Ryan, but there is enough quality at lock that anyone coming in was likely to be a squad player anyway. It feels certain that we will see Henderson and Itoje as the starting pair, with Lawes and Beirne deputising as utility forwards elsewhere. Navidi is a game hanger though, and offers a completely different skill set to Watson. Interesting times...
Tadhg Beirne and Those Crazy Arms
SquidgeRugby put up a great video ahead of this game really dissecting what a weapon Tadhg Beirne is. The guy is just a massive threat across so many functions. He's excellent in the lineout, with a Paul O'Connell - taught pedigree behind him, he's a massive threat on the deck, snatching ball surprisingly cleanly and rarely ever getting pinged, and he's a real smothered of a tackler. We also found out yesterday that the guy has gas! It was a complete performance from the Irishman, really disrupting fast Japanese ball, dominating in the line out and taking an excellent 30 metre try in his stride. That try wasn't a fluke either, it all came down to strategy and overloading forwards across the pitch; one great line ran by one big forward was all it took. Really, really impressive work and now feels the favourite to take that starting test jersey.
Japan are revolutionary in the way they attack, we all know this, and they have spawned countless copycats who have tried to adapt to their style of play. Some interpretations are successful, others not so much. The Lions got it spot on in this game though, and actually beat Japan at their own game. The 1322 set up, although pretty obvious, worked really well this game due to ground constantly being made in the midfield. Whether it was Sutherland smashing it up in the midfield (not the first place you'd imagine a prop to be), or Aki punching holes where there were no gaps, the Lions punctured Japan around the ruck, only to have dynamic strike - forwards scattered across the pitch ready to cut against the grain again and again. That's what created Beirne's try further out wide. Japan's eagerness to try and turn this around, by bringing Leitch and Co further infield meant that the Lions could even further shake things up and spread the ball touch line to touch line. That's where van der Merwe's try came from. Japan's nervousness about their midfield muscle meant that he could sneak around the corner completely untouched. It was a real tactical dismantling of one of the most intuitive, hyper drilled sides in international Rugby.
Pace, Pace, Pace
Taking a read through a lot of the player ratings this game, and not enough respect has been put on Dan Biggar's name. He put in a sterling performance all game and I constantly found myself getting hyped up due to his clear intensity from the off. Every penalty, he raced to hoof the ball down and out, constantly keeping the game in a high tempo and forcing the Lions to make the most of their momentum. Banana kicks, driving speculative kicks and little chips, the guy showed us a range of techniques that every coach would be proud of. He also commanded the attacking shape expertly, choosing interesting formations that allowed the big ball carriers time to run up and find a good line. His chemistry will Murray also seemed really encouraging, with both players happy to orchestrate from the background and let their big blokes do what big blokes do best. I don't know whether they would be afforded the same luxury in the Boks game however, as you have to think de Klerk will put real pressure on Murray to be snappier and hence more risky, and de Allende is pretty likely to read through that forward centric attack after the first few phases.
After struggling throughout the first half to find any momentum or opportunities to really counteract the Lions' physicality, Japan really did make a bit of a fightback in the last third of the game. 28 un-answered points really put the game to bed before it got going, but Japan showed yet again why their fitness separates them from other transitioning tier 2 nations. Sure, you could put it down to key injuries and a lack of game time for those on the bench to mesh on the pitch, but the Lions' did visibly struggle with Japan's frenetic energy in the dying embers. A couple of missed tackles on Matsushima and a couple of barn storming carries by Himeno were all that Japan needed to really find a foothold in the game. Once they did, they pounced, taking a well earnt try and following up with a decent penalty nudge around the hour mark. It definitely was encouraging for a side that hadn't played together in nearly two years; I suppose the Springboks could take hope from this type of performance. They definitely still showed glimpses of their notorious flair, but they've started to marry that with effect strike runners in the loose; Himeno genuinely looks like a star.
Tadhg Beirne - Probably our MOTM on the day, Beirne did everything right and actually proved to be one of the key differences between the two sides.
Dan Biggar - Calm, collected yet responsive and clinical, a really complete performance by the number 10.
Conor Murray - Put a lot of doubters to bed this game and looked far closer to his 2017 best.
Ken Owens - Tackled well, but really, it was his carrying that had us all chomping at the bit.
Kazuki Himeno - Japan's best player on the day, carried a lot of the burden you'd typically see fall onto Leitch's shoulders.