The Herald on Sunday
Lions ready to test themselves against Japan
Leinster prop welcomes tough challenge to see how squad measure up in tour build-up
IT is a rare occurrence for an Irishman to find himself a member of the home team at Murrayfield, and it is not every day that a tour of South Africa kicks off in Scotland. Yet Tadhg Furlong, for one, will feel well prepared for this novel situation when the British & Irish Lions welcome Japan to the national stadium on Saturday.
The Leinster forward has suffered a couple of defeats there – to Connacht in the PRO14 final of 2016 and at the hands of Scotland in the following year’s Six Nations – but he has enjoyed a good few victories too. And, perhaps more pertinently, he is entirely at home in his own position: a world-class tighthead prop who, at 28, could still be several years shy of his peak.
As a newly-assembled group of players, the Lions as a whole are likely to be a month or so short of their peak, which they hope to achieve in the three-Test series against the Springboks.
The game against the Japanese should give head coach Warren Gatland a precise idea of where his players are as they build up to those matches, and Furlong certainly expects a demanding afternoon against a team who beat both his own country and Scotland at the last Rugby World Cup.
“Japan is a big challenge,” he said. “We know ourselves, and Scotland know themselves from the World Cup, that they are a bloody good team and they will definitely test us.
“It’s a massive stepping stone for us. We’ve had a twoweek build-in where we are trying to put the foundations of our game together, and it’s a hit-out where we can see how we perform and where we’re at. It’s a good acid test for us, to see what we’ve learned.
“It’s great that we’re going to have some fans back – we haven’t played in front of fans in a long time so I think that will definitely give the lads a boost.
“Obviously, the whole squad isn’t together for the game, but there’s a group of lads who will have put two good weeks in at that stage.”
The frontrunner for the No.3 jersey in the Tests, Furlong is expected to come up against Steven Kitshoff, who has succeeded Tendai Mtawarira as the Springboks’ first-choice loosehead. The hands-on duel between the two will surely be the most physical confrontation of the series, but the Irishman says they are, and will remain, good friends.
“I just met Steve playing Under-20s in South Africa against their Under-20s and we’ve kept in contact ever since. We toured there in 2016 with Ireland and caught up with him, and they came over in November 2017.
“He’s done very, very well for himself. He’s such a big player for them – a power athlete, physical, abrasive, a bloody good player.
“He’s plenty of experience. He will have started a lot of Tests for South Africa, and he’s 29 now. There wasn’t a starting front row for the South African team in the World Cup. They’d have the first 45 minutes then all change. He’s a very dynamic player.”
Aske d if it was unusual to be so close to a rival prop, Furlong added: “There’s kind of a little prop family going round world rugby, isn’t there? You kind of recognise each other’s weirdness and you find yourself gravitating to the props here at the minute. It’s just one of those weird things.”
Before that weirdness, of course, there is Japan. Furlong is one of 26 players who have been training in Jersey last week, with others such as Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell yet to join up with the squad as their clubs are involved in the end-ofseason play-offs. Assistant coach Neil Jenkins suggested that some of those absentees might yet be involved against Japan, but that would clearly depend on their teams losing this weekend and on Covid reintegration protocols.
Presuming none of those currently absent are included, that would leave Gatland the players below – 12 forwards and 14 backs – from whom to pick. The list includes Irish hooker Ronan Kelleher, who has yet to be officially added to the 37-man squad.
Backs: Josh Adams (Wales), Bundee Aki (Ireland), Dan Biggar (Wales), Gareth Davies (Wales), Chris Harris (Scotland), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Conor Murray (Ireland), Ali Price (Scotland), Louis ReesZammit (Wales), Duhan van der Merwe (Scotland), Anthony Watson (England), Liam Williams (Wales). Forwards: Tadhg Beirne (Ireland), Jack Conan (Ireland), Zander Fagerson (Scotland), Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Wyn Jones (Wales), Ronan Kelleher (Ireland), Courtney Lawes (England), Ken Owens (Wales), Rory Sutherland (Scotland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Hamish Watson (Scotland).
You recognise each other’s weirdness and you find yourself gravitating to the props