First Step

Irish influence will be strong as Lions get their 2021 campaign underway

Warren Gatland insists he has no preconceived ideas about his Test team.

EVERYONE IN THE 37-man squad will get a start over the opening three games, as Warren Gatland has promised, but there’s no doubt that the seven-man Irish contingent will be glad to get their Test team bids underway first up this Saturday.

Six of them – Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Bundee Aki, and Robbie Henshaw – are in the starting XV to face Japan at Murrayfield, with Tadhg Furlong ready to be sprung from the bench.

Gatland insisted yesterday that he and his coaching staff “haven’t got any preconceived ideas about the Test side at the moment” and pointed out that on the 2017 tour, Liam Williams and Elliot Daly started the last midweek game, impressed, and were then in the starting XV for the opening Test against the All Blacks just four days later.

Clearly, the picture can change at a late stage but the Irish candidates will certainly fly to South Africa on Sunday in good form if things go well for them in Edinburgh this weekend.

Henderson had a brilliant Six Nations with Ireland and gets a chance to start alongside tour captain Alun Wyn Jones on Saturday, with the Ulsterman set to call the Lions’ lineout given that Jones doesn’t perform that duty for Wales.

Tadhg Beirne has featured in the second row for Ireland and generally plays there for Munster, but Gatland has made it clear that he views the Kildare man as a back row. Given the Boks’ lineout strengths and the need for the Lions to have a major breakdown threat, Beirne playing in the number six shirt certainly makes a lot of sense.

His maiden Lions outing this weekend sees him team up with fellow Irishman Jack Conan in the back row, the Leinster man getting first shot at the number eight shirt that Taulupe Faletau is favourite to wear for the Test series.

tadhg-furlong-and-jack-conan Billy Stickland / INPHO Tadhg Furlong and Jack Conan at training in Jersey. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

The experienced Welshman was excellent in New Zealand last time around and has been similarly superb in recent times, but Conan does bring compelling form into the tour as something of a bolter. A high-tempo affair against Japan this weekend would suit him.

Conor Murray’s halfback pairing with Wales’ Dan Biggar has the look of a Test side combination to many people and Gatland is looking forward to seeing how they steer the team.

“We are seeing two pretty experienced players,” said Gatland. “Dan has had a very good season for Northampton and I thought he was excellent in the Six Nations, and we know the experience Conor has got.

“The thing with our three nines is they are all different. The experience of this combination at nine and 10, it will be interesting to see how they go, and I am pretty sure that Owen [Farrell] and Finn [Russell] will have something to say about it – they have got different strengths as well and they will get their opportunity.

“I’m sure that both Conor and Dan are very aware they get the first chance and the first opportunity to go out together and impress.”

The same applies to Aki and Henshaw in midfield, a combination that Gatland seems to be excited about. He called Henshaw “world-class” yesterday and reminded everyone that Aki is about more than winning the gainline.

Of course, Scotland’s Chris Harris will hope to compete for the number 13 shirt and England’s Farrell is a contender at 12, where he played the two most recent Lions Tests. Aki and Henshaw do seem well suited to dealing with the power the Boks will throw at the tourists, however. 

conor-murray Dan Sheridan / INPHO Conor Murray starts at scrum-half this weekend. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Furlong is the favourite to start at tighthead, with his second Lions campaign due to get underway with a replacement appearance against the Japanese. The Wexford man will look to make a dominant impact as he sets the tone for the tour ahead.

Zander Fagerson starts the game in the number three shirt while late injury call-up Kyle Sinckler – Furlong’s back-up in 2017 – watches on this weekend. 

There will 20 Lions squad members on that watching brief this weekend and though the Saracens quintent and Finn Russell, who has a slight ankle issue, only arrived into camp on Monday, every single one of them would surely love to have played on Saturday.

The four-man Exeter contingent will play in the Premiership final just after the Lions’ clash with Japan on Saturday and though their focus will be centred on beating Harlequins, it’s not hard to imagine them already being extremely eager to link up with Gatland’s group the following day.

After the long build-up, this 2021 campaign is finally ready to kick off. The Irish influence will be strong on Saturday, so let’s see whether it lasts all the way to the Test series.

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