JAPAN was the dress rehearsal. This is the opening night: the first of eight games in South Africa for the British & Irish Lions, culminating in the three-Test series against the Springboks themselves.

Those forthcoming matches against the world champions may look too close to call right now, but the tourists should certainly get their campaign in the country off to a winning start this evening against their namesakes, the Lions of Johannesburg. The home team finished bottom of their Rainbow Cup table, winning just one of their six games against the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks, and in common with their three rivals are without their Springboks players for their fixture against the visitors.

But there will still be a fair amount of pressure to perform on Warren Gatland’s team at Ellis Park. With so few games to play before the Tests, individual players know they may get no more than a couple of chances at best to stake their claims for a place in the team that really counts. And the group as a whole, many of whom have never played together before, know they need to gel quickly.

Of course, the likes of captain Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Ali Price, three of the five Scots in the starting line-up alongside Chris Harris and Hamish Watson, know each other’s games inside out. Their scores of appearances together for Glasgow and for their
country will stand them in good stead as they aim to hit the ground running, and a sound display tonight should boost Hogg's chances, in particular, of getting into the Test side.  

Yet although the visitors should be too good for the home team, there can be lurking dangers in these early games, with a few local players sometimes proving themselves over-eager to take a big scalp. When it comes to the breakdown, Watson’s skill as a jackaler should be crucial. But in the overall fight for physical supremacy, the key performer may well be the Scot’s back-row colleague Courtney Lawes, who is confident his team have the power to cope with anything thrown at them.

“Regardless of who you play, as a Lions team, the opposition are always going to be going for you,” the England international said yesterday. “They’re always going to be so up for it, ready to get into you. We’ll be prepared for that. But we’ll still be looking to
impose our own physicality on the game as well. 

“I haven’t played out in South Africa before, so I’m really looking forward to it. I’m not entirely sure what we’re going to get in terms of craic on the pitch or whatnot and people trying to wind us up. But I feel we’ve got a lot of pretty level-headed players.
I’m certainly not looking to start scrapping on the first game of the tour. 

see what happens. On the first game out here it’s going to be important to show what we’re going to be about on this tour.”

Lawes was on the tour to New Zealand four years ago, when the Lions drew the series with the All Blacks. The travelling support was a big factor then as Warren Gatland’s team fought back from losing the first Test to win the second then draw the third. But this time fans have been banned from grounds because of the Covid pandemic - something that Lawes knows could be tough to deal with. 

“My most memorable thing from the last tour was just how amazing the fans were. I’ve never seen anything like it - the kind of dedication and support you get from the Lions fans. I don’t think you get it in any team anywhere else in the world. Obviously we are missing that and it is a massive shame.” 

Head coach Gatland revealed earlier in the week that ex-captain Alun Wyn Jones is recovering quickly from the dislocated shoulder he suffered playing against Japan last week. The Welshman was replaced as skipper by Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray, but it now seems that he could be fit again in time to play in the Tests - even though it would probably need somebody else to be ruled out by injury before Jones could come back into the party.  

“If we could get him back that would be great,” Lawes said. “He’s a great bloke and an amazing captain. 

“I think the thing we’re fortunate here with is the fact we’ve got so many good leaders - so many captains and people that have played in big matches and can step up and lead this group. So while obviously it would be amazing to get him back and he would certainly add to the group, we’re not going to be lost without him.”  

This Lions side, from Hogg at full-back to Wyn Jones at loosehead prop, know their way around a rugby pitch all right. They should be capable of displaying the odd touch of class on their way to a convincing victory this evening, but with tougher challenges to come, a solid, composed performance will be the most important thing.