By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - The British & Irish Lions, shorn of key players against a Japan side who have not played for 20 months in a match uncertain of Test status, will hardly be getting off to a fanfare start but they will make the best of things at Murrayfield on Saturday.
That the game is going ahead is an achievement after the Lions' tour of South Africa was in doubt for so long but, with Warren Gatland's squad set fair to face the world champions in a three-test series, the real preparation starts this weekend.
Gatland is without players involved in the English Premiership final between Exeter and Harlequins on Saturday and has had little time to work with others who joined the Jersey training camp late after playing for their clubs last weekend.
Such issues are meat and drink to the New Zealand coach, however, as are two late injuries this week that upset his plan to start four Scots in the team in the country's capital after they have been barely represented in the Lions for so long.
Blending a side in a hurry from limited opportunities is the essence of Lions coaching and Gatland was at pains this week to stress that everyone in the squad will get a start in the early games and be given their chance.
"We are not fixed in our thoughts, we haven’t got any preconceived ideas about the Test side at the moment," he said. "We are giving everyone an opportunity and want to see who makes a real impression.
"Someone is going to come through that a lot of people might not expect. That's the exciting part from the coaching aspect."
For once, the Lions won't be the only team taking the field somewhat undercooked this year. The Springboks have not played sine the World Cup final in 2019 and have arranged two tests against Georgia to prepare.
Japan's last Test was against the Springboks in the World Cup quarter-finals and they have since managed just run-outs against a club side to try to rediscover some of the mojo that made them so exciting in their home tournament.
"We expect a really strong test from Japan," Gatland said.
"They have already had a warm-up game against the Sunwolves where they probably felt they weren’t at their best but they won the game in the end. They will be a lot stronger as a combination for the game on Saturday.
"They are World Cup quarter-finalists so you have to respect what they have achieved in recent years. We go in expecting a tough encounter. We know we will be a little bit rusty."
Officials are trying to decide if the match will get full international Test status for the Lions, though that will be of little concern to the players involved whose focus will be on making an impression for the main event further down the line.
Home fans too - 16,500 - will also just enjoy the only opportunity they will get to see the 2021 Lions in the flesh, as none will be allowed to travel to South Africa where it still looks unlikely that even home fans will be let into stadiums.
Last time the Lions played a home Test to launch a series they needed a last-gasp Jonny Wilkinson penalty to snatch a draw with Argentina in Cardiff in 2005 before going on to be demolished on tour by New Zealand.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips; Editing by Ken Ferris)