FIVE of the eight Scottish players in this summer’s Lions tour squad will get an early chance to impress head coach Warren Gatland and his assistants on Saturday afternoon, with Rory Sutherland, Zander Fagerson, Hamish Watson and Duhan van der Merwe being named in the starting XV for the team’s one and only pre-tour match against Japan at Murrayfield, plus Ali Price set to make his first appearance in the famous red jersey off the bench.  

Finn Russell, who was a late arrival at the Lions training camp in Jersey on Monday morning, having spent last week on club duty with Racing 92, has been given the weekend off to rest a minor ankle injury – which Gatland stressed is a precautionary measure. “He got a slight strain last week with Racing, so we thought we’d give him a little bit more time to get that ankle right, even though he’s training fully,” explained the coach. 

Chris Harris misses out on selection at outside centre to the hugely experienced Robbie Henshaw of Ireland, while Scotland skipper Stuart Hogg is still finishing off his club season with Exeter Chiefs, who play Harlequins in the final of the Gallagher Premiership on Saturday. 

Gatland acknowledged that giving some of the Scots in his squad an opportunity to be part of the first Lions team to play on Scottish soil had been a factor in selection but added that rewarding form and picking combinations which will click quickly against top level opposition had been the key considerations. 

“I think if you’re playing in Scotland you want to have a reasonable representation of Scottish players,” said the New Zealander. “For those players, I think it is important they get a chance to play at Murrayfield in front of their home fans and family [a crowd of 16,500 is being permitted]. So, that was a bit of motivation in terms of having Scottish representation. If it were me as a player, I would love that chance to play at home in front of friends and family. So that fitted in well. 

“Hamish has been the Six Nations player of the year and his performances during the championship speak for themselves,” he added. “Duhan offers something different, he was the top try scorer in the Six Nations and for a guy who weighs 110kgs he gets some go forward, but it’s not just his power he’s got good footwork, he’s quick and has that ability to finish off scores.   

“With the two front rowers we were impressed with the way the Scottish scrum went during the Six Nations. Rory is incredibly explosive and powerful at loose-head and had a good championship, while Zander has done a great job on the tight-head. It’s a great chance for the Scottish boys to go out there and have that opportunity at home in front of their fans and family members.  

“There is also a couple of familiar combinations there with the two Scottish props [Sutherland and Fagerson], the six-eight-nine axis of Tadhg [Beirne], Jack [Conan] and Conor [Murray] from Ireland, the two Irish midfielders [Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw], and Josh Adams and Liam Williams [both Welsh] in the back three. So, there is definitely some familiarity there which helps with the cohesion.” 

This will be Rory Sutherland’s first match back since dislocating his shoulder playing for Scotland against France back at the end of March and Gatland said he is entirely confident that the 27-year-old will hit the ground running. 

“We kept a close eye on his shoulder injury, and he could have played for Edinburgh about a week before he came into camp, but we didn’t feel we needed him to do that to show his fitness,” said the 57-year-old, who is embarking on his third tour as Lions head coach. “He was ready, but we just gave him a little more time. He loves being in the gym and we know how powerful and strong he is. We’re not too worried about his fitness so it’s just about him going out there and doing his job.  

“If he’s lacking a little bit of game-time we’ve got Wyn Jones to come off the bench, but we’re comfortable and confident he’ll get through the game without any issues. He’s been doing all the driving, mauling, lineout stuff and scrums at training with no issues at all.” 

Alongside the four Scots in the starting XV, there are five Welshmen, six Irishmen and no Englishmen, but it is highly unlikely that this will develop into a pattern throughout the Test series. Anthony Watson and Courtney Lawes – who are both on the bench on Saturday – were the only two out of the 12 English players in the full 37-man squad able to be part of last week’s training camp. Now, with the rest of England’s contingent filtering into the group as their club seasons come to an end, there will inevitably be a greater Anglo flavour to the match-day squads going forward. 

British & Irish Lions (v Japan at Murrayfield, Saturday 3pm): L Williams; J Adams, R Henshaw, B Aki, D van der Merwe; D Biggar, C Murray; R Sutherland, K Owens, Z Fagerson, I Henderson, AW Jones, T Beirne, H Watson, J Conan. Replacements: J George, W Jones, T Furlong, C Lawes, T Faletau, A Price, O Farrell, A Watson.