It was a slightly soulless day at Murrayfield – shorn of the usual sponsor because this was the 1888 Vodafone Lions Cup – for the historic visit of the British and Irish Lions.
The restricted crowd of 16,500, the biggest in Scotland since the pandemic began, did make a fair bit of noise. The Scots got a huge cheer, even Murrayfield bete noir Owen Farrell was acclaimed.
28-10 seems like a super start to the summer for the Lions. But it didn’t feel like it was the full-bore test they had anticipated and wanted.
Skipper’s early departure a sobering moment
There was a deathly quiet – followed by sustained, sympathetic applause – when skipper Alun Wyn Jones had to depart after just seven minutes after sustaining a shoulder injury trying to jackal. They never let him do that on the last tour.
Justin Tipuric followed later in the first half, again after a knock to the shoulder. Both later re-appeared the stands sling-less and not noticeably bereft.
But the news in the aftermath was devastating – Warren Gatland said that a scan would show full details, but the totemic captain was out of the tour with barely a shot fired.
It was a shoulder dislocation and they popped it back in. But Gatland said the best-case scenario was that he could be back for the first test. That wasn’t really an option, given the importance of preparation and the added complications of Covid.
Tipuric had just a shoulder stinger, and they think he will recover, but time will tell.
The rugby was fairly decent at times, but only that.
Japan tried to play their all-action, pace and precision game, but really looked like a team that hadn’t played a test since October 2019. Passes spilled and overrun, and the Blossoms’ usual tenacious defence had holes in all the wrong places.
The Lions capitalised with unforgiving aplomb. They sent their big runners up stand-off Yu Tamura’s channel and the always light-looking 10 had no cover. The result were the first-half tries for Josh Adams and for Robbie Henshaw.
Dan Biggar’s class display at 10 leads Lions to place of comfort
A day for the debutants at BT Murrayfield 🥳@duhanvdmerwe getting in on the act 👇
— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) June 26, 2021
Tamura’s opposite number Dan Biggar also attacked wide with miss-passes whenever the opportunity arose. Two eventually resulted in the try for Duhan van der Merwe, when he scampered untouched from the base of a touchline ruck.
Van der Merwe now has nine tries from just 11 tests – well, if the Lions board finally decide this match is deserving of test status.
Shortly after half-time Courtney Lawes lost the ball in the act of scoring, but Tadhg Beirne motored in from 25 metres on another sumptuous Biggar delivery. Who said he was just a kicking half-back?
Dapper Dan also rescued his half-back partner Conor Murray with a deft bit of handling and exit kick when the scrum-half’s laboured kick from near his own line was charged down.
The game descends into a bit of an exhibition
Jack Conan looked the best of a combative back row, Henshaw and Bundee Aki in the centre battered effectively. Rory Sutherland had no ill effects after a couple of months out and a couple of bashing carries.
But for much of the second half it took the full flavour of an exhibition game.
Japan started to put together a few things, the Lions, throwing on a swathe of replacements, suddenly looked like players only recently introduced to each other. Which in a lot of cases is what they actually are.
Not a great day for the Murrayfield experience
It was not a great day for Scottish Rugby and the Murrayfield “experience”. The power in the press box didn’t come on for the first half-hour, but that’s a first world problem.
The beer queues took over an hour prior to kick-off and then they closed the bars 10 minutes before half-time to hearty boos from the Red Army.
The SRU put out a statement saying that stock was low due to “unprecedented demand” prior to kick-off, but the decision was also made “to ensure pre-agreed social distancing guidelines could be maintained and avoid crowding.”
One of the stadium video boards – which have flickered throughout lockdown – went out completely in the first half, although it did return in the second half.
With the match a crucial earner for the Lions brand with no fans going to South Africa, and tickets reportedly at £150 a pop, it wasn’t the greatest look.