Dan Biggar prepares for the first Lions warm-up match against Japan at Murrayfield
Credit: David Rogers
/Getty Images Europe
The last time the British and Irish Lions played a home match, against Argentina in Cardiff in 2005, it was also the last time that the fly-half for the opening game went on to start the first Test.
Jonny Wilkinson was the player tasked with pulling the strings that day for Sir Clive Woodward’s side ahead of the New Zealand tour and now 16 years later, the starter at Murrayfield today, Dan Biggar, also appears to be in pole position for the Test No 10 jersey.
The 31 year-old would not thank you for any comparisons with Wilkinson but few would argue that on current form, the Wales fly-half is the frontrunner to be the Lions’ playmaker against the Springboks.
That is a recognition of the transformation of his game since his move to Northampton Saints from the Ospreys in 2018.
Four years ago he was one of three fly-halves picked for the tour of New Zealand, but after a loss of form in the build-up to the tour, he was unable to put any pressure on Johnny Sexton or Owen Farrell.
After Farrell started the first Test defeat in Auckland, Warren Gatland opted to switch him to inside centre, bringing in Sexton at 10 in one of the tactical switches that would salvage the series.
Yet since then his work with Chris Boyd and Sam Vesty at the Saints has broadened his attacking game, previously founded on a ferocious work ethic, physicality and strong defence, attributes not dissimilar to Wilkinson.
Competition with the Bristol Bears playmaker Callum Sheedy, who finished last autumn at fly-half for Wales, and Jarrod Evans at the Cardiff Blues, has also appeared to have driven his game to a new level.
Three Lions players who need to impress against Japan
With Sexton overlooked for the tour, Farrell likely to be considered as an inside centre once again and question marks over Finn Russell’s temperament to start a Lions Test series, it is Biggar, like Wilkinson before him, who begins the tour with the opportunity to make the No 10 jersey his own.
His advantage is underscored by the fact that Russell and Farrell only joined up with the Lions in the second week of their training camp in Jersey because of club commitments with Racing 92 and Saracens respectively.
“Dan has a really good age profile for a 10 – all three 10s are – they have real experience behind them and physically they are still at a really good level,” said Gregor Townsend, the Lions assistant coach, who started the 1997 Test series against South Africa at fly-half.
“Dan has been in really good form. He has been a key leader for us attack wise so far until Owen and Finn arrived and he has driven a lot of what we want to do in Jersey.”
That he has been paired with Conor Murray, whose resurgence during the Six Nations with Ireland makes the Munster scrum-half the favourite to retain the Test place he excelled in four years ago in New Zealand, is not without significance either.
With the Ireland centre-pairing of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw playing outside them, Japan will face the most combative and direct combination as the Lions attempt to develop at least two attacking philosophies for the Springboks.
While Japan, playing their first game since their World Cup quarter-final defeat in 2019, may not be the ideal opponents in terms of the physical confrontation they will face in South Africa, Townsend expects Biggar and Murray to face a similar defensive pressure.
Biggar (C-L) is the current favourite to start the first test against South Africa, ahead of Owen Farrell and Fin Russell
“There are differences in philosophies (between Japan and South Africa), ” added Townsend.
“Japan look to retain more possession and look to move the target a lot. But in terms of defence, there are a lot of similarities with South Africa’s defence.
“They do rush out of the line, they’re very physical and compete hard at the breakdown. So as an attack coach, it’s really good preparation for what we’re going to face.
“Defensively it’s a different challenge and we have to be alive to them moving the ball from anywhere on the field. They back their fitness. It’s a tough game to start the tour. We realise this is a huge game for them too, to take on the Lions for the first time in their history and to get another scalp after they ticked off a couple of teams at the World Cup.”
Yet for all the tactical intrigue, today’s game, in front of a crowd of 16,500, will be the opportunity for the Lions to lay down a marker physically. In captain Alun Wyn Jones, they have the perfect totem.
“I’ve said a couple of things to the squad about everyone needing to be ready and getting the job done with regards to the basics,” said Jones.
“I’ve been on these tours but it’s the first one in a global pandemic with all the challenges off the field. In many ways we’re going to have a constant challenge off the field and when we go on to the pitch that’s the opportunity to express ourselves. That isn’t going to be wasted.
“There is a definite recognition for how fortunate and privileged we are to be here. There are a lot of people who have said it probably shouldn’t have gone ahead but we’re very fortunate and that resonates with the squad.”