Warren Gatland says hugging opponents will be off limits when the British & Irish Lions play their opening game against Japan at Murrayfield on Saturday. The touring squad is anxious to sidestep the Covid-19 self-isolation complications affecting the footballing plans of England and Scotland at the European Championship.
Gatland already has plenty on his plate before Sunday’s flight to an increasingly Covid-stricken South Africa, and could do without any squad members being forced to self-isolate for 10 days just as he is seeking to bring the best players from four nations closer together.
“We’re very, very aware,” said Gatland, who deliberately chose to base his pre-tour camp in Jersey to reduce the risk. “There are two messages there … we’ve got to make sure we really adhere to the protocols and make sure there’s no hugging.”
With infection rates in Gauteng province, where the touring team will initially be based, having soared in the past few days, the odds on a Covid-free Lions tour are increasingly lengthy but, rugby-wise, the expedition is now officially down the slipway with the announcement of the matchday 23 for the curtain-raiser against the Brave Blossoms.
The game has yet to be granted official Test status – a final decision is not due to be made until after the tour – but it promises to be a big deal for those involved, not least the four Scots named in a starting XV which, for various reasons, does not contain an Englishman. Alun Wyn Jones will lead a side containing 10 first-time Lions, with Rory Sutherland, Zander Fagerson, Hamish Watson and Duhan van der Merwe hoping to make an impact in familiar surroundings.
Wales’s Josh Adams and Ireland’s Bundee Aki, Tadhg Beirne and Jack Conan will also be making their first Lions starts, with the prop Wyn Jones and Scotland ’s Ali Price ready to make debuts as replacements. The only English representation is on the bench where the Saracens pair Jamie George and Owen Farrell – who arrived on Monday – are joined by Northampton’s Courtney Lawes and Anthony Watson of Bath.
To some extent Gatland’s selectorial hand was forced, given the late arrival of the Saracens contingent, the continuing absence of the four Exeter players involved in the Premiership final on Saturday and the slight ankle tweak that has delayed Finn Russell’s introduction to the fray. On the plus side the management have taken the opportunity to field a couple of familiar combinations, not least at half-back and in midfield, and have been quietly encouraged by much of what they have seen on the training field.
At first glance, Gatland has enjoyed the energy of the Saracens posse, suggesting Elliot Daly had looked particularly sharp and that Owen Farrell’s leadership qualities would be a key addition, regardless of England’s Six Nations underachievement and Saracens having spent recent months in the Championship.
“A lot was made of the Six Nations and them looking underdone, it’s probably a fair enough criticism,” said Gatland. “But we’ve got time together … if anyone is a little short we feel we can get them up to speed. They were up at 7 o’clock this morning doing altitude training so they’ve had a pretty full day already.”
Farrell has been voted on to the tour leadership group – he polled more votes from squad members than anyone else – but Gatland was swift to reject any notion his Test 23 is set in stone. “We are not fixed in our thoughts, we haven’t got any preconceived ideas about the Test side at the moment. We are giving everyone an opportunity and want to see who makes a real impression.
“Someone is going to come through that a lot of people might not expect. That’s the exciting part from the coaching aspect.”
The impact of the turnover specialist Beirne on the blindside flank and the early form of the Scottish props Sutherland and Fagerson, accordingly, will be closely monitored even if Japan’s preference for a high-tempo, nimble game will hardly mirror the hulking, forward-oriented threat posed by the Boks..
As far as Gatland is concerned, though, Japan should not be idly dismissed. “We are playing an international side so we are playing a Test match. Those sort of decisions are out of my hands and are for the board to make. But I can tell you, we are preparing to play a quality international team and we thoroughly respect them – they made the World Cup quarter-final.”
Manu Tuilagi has pulled out of England’s summer Test squad after picking up a knock playing for Sale against Exeter in the Premiership semi-final on Saturday. He has been replaced by Northampton’s Fraser Dingwall.