Warren Gatland has given starts to Duhan van der Merwe and Jack Conan

Credit: Getty Images

Predicting how the British and Irish Lions will approach their meeting with Japan at Murrayfield is tricky for two reasons. Firstly, from a tactical standpoint, they could not have hand-picked more different opponents than the Springboks.

At the last World Cup, Japan averaged just over 185 passes per match. The corresponding figure for South Africa was 118, according to Opta. Japan spent 20 more rucks in possession than South Africa (95 to 73) and kicked six fewer times per match (22 to 28).

Secondly, the Lions have had limited preparation with their squad gradually growing as players arrive. And, besides, they will want to keep a few strategic nuances concealed from prying eyes.

Lions team to play Japan

Yesterday, defence coach Steve Tandy and lock Iain Henderson explained that the Lions’ approach would constitute a balance between embedding team principles and paying Japan the respect they deserve. With that in mind, what might the first run-out of 2021 look like?

Attacking structure to develop with back-rowers key

Ironically enough, we can expect a Japanese flavour to the Lions’ attack. Both Ireland and Wales have been influenced by the 1-3-2-2 formation with which the Brave Blossoms stretched defences as tournament hosts at the last World Cup. England gave it a run against Italy in the recent Six Nations, too:

Theoretically, the Lions’ back-row selection should allow attack coach Gregor Townsend to lean on this system. By picking Taulupe Faletau, Jack Conan and Sam Simmonds as specialist number eights – and eschewing Billy Vunipola and CJ Stander – the emphasis is on speed, mobility and comfort in the 15-metre channels over power.

Faletau, Conan and Simmonds will be complemented by taller, heftier blindside flankers. Tadhg Beirne is given the first opportunity at blindside, with Conan at the base of the scrum and Hamish Watson at openside flanker.

This is the rough shape of a 1-3-2-2 attack. The forwards’ positions are labelled in the diagram below (P for prop, H for hooker, L for lock and BR for back-rower) but are interchangeable. For instance, starting hooker Ken Owens could hang in either the one-man or the two-man wide pods as well as either central pod:

Equally, the formation can morph according to how many forwards are required to recycle the ball at any given breakdown. In any case, it is a method that allows a team to probe wide channels in phase-play provided they can keep possession.

The passing of Alun Wyn Jones and Beirne should tie things together and ensure that the point of contact is shifted continually – even if the Lions head through the middle. This pull-back against England by the latter was lovely:


Conan’s dynamism was a feature of that game-shaping attack, with the Leinsterman hanging wide…

…and eventually finishing from close range:

Watson is a mightily wholehearted and resourceful player capable of crashing through bodies in the tight exchanges. This deft pass against Italy showcased some nice distribution close to the touchline, too:

Something to keep an eye on is who steps up to help Dan Biggar as a secondary distributor this weekend, because the starting Lions backline does not contain a classic playmaker outside of fly-half.

Josh Adams and Duhan van der Merwe will come off their wings looking for carries around the fringes, a tactic that underpinned Wales’ 2019 Grand Slam. Centres Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw are capable of punching holes as well.

With the England captain on the bench, we could see a glimpse at a midfield of Biggar, Owen Farrell and Robbie Henshaw if the Lions open up later on.

Wings crucial in first-phase race

On the way to World Cup glory, South Africa based their gameplan on intensity and control. They exercised restraint and did not spend many phases with the ball inside their own half, preferring to kick and defend higher up the pitch.

Masterminded by Jacques Nienaber, since promoted to head coach, South Africa’s defence was aggressive. Their wings pressed hard beyond a strong midfield partnership of Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am. Faf de Klerk was their roaming disruptor and powerful forwards presented a green and gold wall.

First-phase moves from set pieces, both scrums and six- and seven-man lineouts, will give the Lions a chance to attack with the Springboks pack tied in. And their blindside wings should be prominent as first-receivers.

Scotland have used Van der Merwe with uncomplicated yet effective screen plays such as this:

Anthony Watson, on the bench against Japan, stands at first-receiver here to give England more width. Without a spill from Elliot Daly, there would have been room to nudge a kick in behind Liam Williams:

Lions Scrum

Of the 64 tries scored by the England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales during the 2021 Six Nations, 28 came from lineouts. However, South Africa surrendered just 22 metres from the 20 mauls they defended at Rugby World Cup 2019 – 1.1 metre per maul being the stingiest total in the tournament – and stole 11 throws in total over the tournament. Creativity will be key.

Lineout variation and setting a scrummaging tone

Perhaps above all others, the lineout is an area in which the Lions will keep their cards close to the chest. But watch out for some variation against Japan. There may be throws over the top to onrushing centres, for instance.

Scotland ran a couple of clever shift-drives during the Six Nations, which could help fix South Africa’s forwards. This one is from the win over France:

Shift drive

On the back of it, Ali Price arcs away with Hamish Watson on his inside to hold France flanker Anthony Jelonch at the tail:

More runners in motion swarm the scrum-half. Blindside wing Darcy Graham cuts underneath Price, Finn Russell drops out the back and centre Sam Johnson steams through a hesitant France midfield:

Johnson break

Robin McBryde, now an assistant coach at Leinster and the Lions’ forwards coach, will have been overseeing some intricate moves in Jersey.

Here, in the Champions Cup quarter-final against Exeter Chiefs, Ronan Kelleher finds Devin Toner and Conan arcs around towards the front of the set piece:

As Ben Moon buffets into the maul, Toner feeds Conan and Leinster have a two-on-one against Exeter scrum-half Jack Maunder:

Conan offloads to Kelleher and it takes a remarkable recovery from Dave Ewers and Luke Cowan-Dickie to save Exeter:

Naturally, the Lions will want to leave for South Africa on the back of a strong scrummaging performance against Japan.

Henderson was Ireland’s tighthead lock for this shove against England. He begins with both knees anchored, a technique McBryde will have brought to the Lions…

…and helps Tadhg Furlong splinter Ellis Genge:

Tadhg Furlong scrum

He will be bolstering Zander Fagerson this weekend.

Kicking strategy

In an extremely insightful appearance on Irish sports show Off the Ball, Stuart Lancaster said this about how he would approach the task of outmanoeuvring South Africa’s defence:

“It sits in the sweet spot between playing to space – and there is space behind the high winger – and playing in behind them. You’d be foolish to think the Lions are going to run it from everywhere and achieve success because that’s a recipe for disaster. Equally, [South Africa] have got such good counter-attackers in [Cheslin] Kolbe and [Willie] Le Roux that your kicking strategy needs to be effective as well.”

New Zealand beat South Africa in the 2019 pool stage, scoring two tries from recovered kicks:

In the semi-final, the patience of Gatland’s side almost undid the Springboks. Wales stayed in the game thanks to their tactical discipline. They did not get seduced into running the ball from deep, as England were in the final a week later.

Biggar has a vast repertoire of midfield chips and cross-field kick-passes. Conor Murray will give Adams, Van der Merwe, Henshaw and Williams some high balls to chase from the base of rucks as well.

Lancaster suggested the strategy of spinning the ball wide to draw up South Africa full-back Le Roux before nudging grubbers into the space behind. Wales carried out a similar plan against England four months ago.

The battle for ricochets is always important. Scotland posted Watson out wide to chase a Finn Russell up-and-under in the early stages of their win over France:

Russell bomb

Keep an eye on how the Lions configure their chase, because the broken-field situations born out of bobbles and rebounds often shape matches.

Dictating with defence

Japan and South Africa may be contrasting sides, but they both thrive off quick ball. To combat that this weekend, Beirne and Watson are sure to lead the Lions’ jackalling effort.

Elsewhere, Biggar should patrol the back-field with Liam Williams as part of a 13-2 set-up while Aki and Henshaw lead the front line.

It is interesting that the latter begins his second Lions tour as an outside centre, but his sharp decision-making can be most influential in that channel. He simply bullied England back in March:


Finally, to the ruck. Overcommitting at defensive breakdowns can be precarious against South Africa if a steal does not come off.

Expect Henderson, Alun Wyn Jones, Beirne and the centres to attempt to hold up Japan’s runners in wrestle-tackles. When it comes to sapping the speed of opposition attacks, every second counts.