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Warren Gatland Q&A: A Lions player few people expect will take this tour by storm

Warren Gatland has named his Lions team to face Japan in their tour opener this Saturday.

Here’s everything the British and Irish Lions coach had to say afterwards.

The can catch upon the full squad announcement here.

Eight of the 23 featured in the third Test in New Zealand four years ago. Did that come into your thinking when picking this side?

“Just a coincidence. I hadn’t even looked at the numbers who started last time.

“We wanted to play a few of the Scottish boys because they’re at home. With a few of the Saracens boys and Exeter boys coming in late and not being available, it does changes the make up of the side a little bit.

“I wasn’t really thinking of the players and where they’ve come from. It’s just about who was available to us. It’s about putting out what we think is a strong side who can do a job for us.”

You’ve put Owen Farrell and Jamie George on the bench. Is that a case of needs must?

“Well,we’ve only got two hookers so we’re a bit limited with Jamie coming onto the bench.

“We’d spoken about Finn (Russell) potentially being on the bench but Owen can cover us at 12 and then you have Anthony Watson covering the back-three.

Read more:Lions team to play Japan as Alun Wyn Jones among five Wales players named

“We wanted to give Finn a bit more time as he had a slight ankle strain last week with Racing. We thought we’d give him a bit more time to get that ankle right, even though he’s training fully. That was our thoughts with that.”

With less midweek games, is it still the case that everyone gets a chance early on?

“If you were totally focused on the Tests, you might not engage with that but we feel it’s so important that all the players get the chance to start early on.

“I’ve often spoken about the harmony of the squad and for everyone to feel they had a chance. For that, we feel it’s very important. As an ex-player, you understand that if you start in one of those early games, you feel you’ve put yourself in the shop window.

“It’s very much behind our thinking. We want everyone to feel a part of it and that they’re getting an opportunity.”

What sort of challenge are you expecting from Japan?

“We’re expecting a really strong Test from Japan. They’ve already had a warm-up against the Sunwolves where they weren’t at their best, particularly in the first 50/60 minutes.

“They won the game in the end and they’ll be a lot stronger for it this Saturday. They’re World Cup quarter-finalists so you have to respect what they’ve achieved in recent years.

“We’re expecting a tough encounter. We’ll be a little rusty as we’re trying to put in layers in what we want to achieve as a squad.

“Getting calls and getting familiar with each other, we know that’s going to take some time. It’s brilliant we’ll have some crowd there in Edinburgh.

“As a group of players, they get a chance to start this tour on the right foot. It’s a chance to really impress but also it’s an important job for the whole squad that we go out there and put in a good performance.”

Which is more important – the performance or a win?

“It’s a bit of both. The win is nice, but you want to see the cohesion with the players.

“There’s a couple of familiar combinations there with two Scottish props, Tadhg Beirne and Jack Conan, two Irish centres and Josh Adams and Liam Williams.

“There’s definitely some familiarity there which hopefully helps with the cohesion. We’ve been really pleased with how the players have come together in the last week or so.

“They’ve just seemed to get better and better. They’ve been working hard on the training pitch and looking at their laptops to make sure they know all the calls.

“The lads have really impressed us as a group in how they’ve knitted together and the homework they’ve done to make sure they’re up to speed.”

We’ve seen two England footballers isolating after hugging a Scotland player. Is that a useful reminder of the importance of the bubble?

“I think we’re very, very aware.

“The players that have had a couple of campaigns in the autumn and Six Nations, particularly the home nations, were pretty good at staying Covid-free.

“So there’s two things there. First of all, we need to make sure we adhere to the protocols and second of all, make sure there’s no hugging!”

Any new faces you’ve been surprised by?

“I think they’ve all stepped up. The best thing is that quality players bring the best out of everyone.

“We’ve already seen that with the group that everyone seems to have raised the standard. We feel as a coaching group we’ve been able to move a lot quicker than we normally would have.

“We’ve got quality players who take on the information so quickly. They’ve all been so accurate. The whole group have really impressed us. We’re excited about those players who get to go out there and perform.

“I don’t think it’s any one person who has stuck out. We’ve had some players who have trained well, but as a whole group they’ve been excellent in how they’ve conducted themselves.”

Japan are a very different team to South Africa. Is it a case of tailoring a game plan for Japan or focusing on the overarching plan?

“You’re 100 per cent right. Japan will probably try and play with more tempo.

“They won’t have the same physical prowess in trying to take you on in the set-piece like South Africa will.

“We’ve got that in mind and we want to go out and play the game plan against Japan that we can be successful with but keeping in mind what we want to do in South Africa.

“It’s two things we’re trying to cover off with those threats we expect from Japan, but also bear in mind what we’re likely to face against the South African teams.”

How are your emotions after such a disrupted build-up to a Lions tour?

“Yeah, it’s come around pretty quickly in the end because it’s seemed to have taken forever in terms of getting the team announced.

“Even in our bubble, it seems pretty familiar with what you’d normally do. It’s only on days off when boys would go get coffees in town (that it feels different).

“There are some restrictions and we’ve got to plan accordingly for that and keep the boys entertained. But I’m incredibly excited.

“There’s a hint of disappointment or sadness that we won’t have fans and we won’t see that sea of red that you associate Lions tours with. It’s going to be the downside of it.

“Hopefully the rugby is going to do the talking and we need to make sure we connect with the fans back home as much as we can through social media and have them feel as engaged as we can.

“That’s an important aspect, keeping people up to date. Having that connection is incredibly important to us as a Lions team.”

Do you think the match this weekend deserves Test status?

“Well, we’re playing an international team so for me it’s a Test match.

“Those decisions are out of my hands. Those are decisions for the board to make.

“But we’re preparing for a quality international team that we thoroughly respect. So we’re preparing as though it’s a Test match.”

Are the combinations at this stage selected with Test matches in mind?

“No, I think we’re a little hampered at the moment without the full squad.

“A large number of the English contingent haven’t been available to us. You’d like to be able to mix and match within the team, but you are thinking about certain combinations early on that helps with some cohesion.

“When we picked the squad, that was part of our thinking that there was some familiarity in the team. We’ll need to mix and match over the next few games as we build towards the Tests and it’ll be interesting to see how those combinations go.

“Maybe they go incredibly well and we keep them, or we change them. We’re not fixed in our thoughts and we haven’t got preconceived ideas about the Test side at the moment.

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“We given everyone an opportunity and we want to see guys put their hands up. Players that play well will get that chance and that door is always open. That was the message in 2017.

“We said to the guys who played against the Chiefs that the Test side wasn’t selected and a couple of guys put their hands up that night and made the Test 23. It’s trying to be clear in our thoughts but not being closed off to possibilities.

“We’ve got some real quality and everyone’s going to get their chance. Someone will come through that a lot of people won’t expect and that’s the exciting part from the coaching aspect. We’re not fixed on who we think is going to make the Test team.”

Tell us about the Irish midfield partnership of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw?

“Their combination goes back to the Connacht days. They’re great mates as well, so that helps.

“A lot of people see Bundee as being someone capable of getting across the gainline but he’s got a lot more than that to offer. He’s got some great skill too and a passing and offloading game.

“Robbie was the outstanding midfielder in the Six Nations. He’s great in the air. We’ve seen him develop and mature from four years ago. That’s been probably one of the biggest highlights for me, that he’s developed into an absolute world class midfielder.

“We’re expecting a lot from those two and I think they’re expecting a lot from themselves too.”

Is there a concern the Saracens players won’t be up to speed after an under-cooked Six Nations?

“The Saracens boys trained this morning and their enthusiasm was great.

“Elliot Daly looked excellent and Maro was his usual vocal self and brought a lot of energy. Owen looked sharp too. From what I saw in training today, they fitted in extremely well.

“The thing for them is they’ve got the experience and were all Lions last time. It was pretty seamless in terms of them fitting back in and knowing familiar faces.

“We were very, very happy with them this morning and we’ll see how things go this afternoon.

“The proof of the pudding is in playing and a lot was made in the Six Nations about them looking underdone. That was probably a fair criticism but we’ve got a number of weeks with them.

“If anyone is short of things, we feel like we can get them up to speed. They were up at 7 this morning doing altitude training so they’ve had a pretty full day already.”

What about Owen Farrell specifically?

“I’ve spoken to him and the chat was that it wasn’t the greatest Six Nations. But we’ve picked him on the leadership and experience he can bring to the group and the success he’s had.

“He’s a fantastic competitor and what’s he’s achieved in the game speaks for itself. One of the things we did on the administration day was ask all the players to vote and pick a leadership group.

“I think it was interesting that he ended up with the most votes so that speaks volumes for the respect that he’s held in the group. Not just the England players, but a number of other players too.

“Knowing him as a competitor, he’ll go out and make the most of his opportunities. I expect him to have a great tour.”

Is Tadhg Beirne being viewed as a second-row as well as a back-row?

“He’s been very, very good. We’ll probably look at him at this stage as a back-rower.

“We know he can cover the second-row. I spoke to him the other day about what his point of difference was and he knew straight away. His work at the breakdown and the turnovers he creates is pretty special for a player.

“We’re looking for players to think about what their points of difference are and for Tadhg, that’s a big part of his game. Those sort of things can change a game and you need a player like that to have an impact in a match.

“Hopefully at the weekend he has a chance to demonstrate some of those abilities he has.”

What can you read into Japan’s warm-up against the Sunwolves?

“I think Japan didn’t show everything in that game that they’ve got.

“It was their first warm-up game so there were things they were focusing on. They probably kicked more than they normally would and they looked a bit rusty.

“They still managed to finish on top. We’re expecting them to be a lot stronger.”

Conor Murray and Dan Biggar – is that a Test trial run?

“We’re seeing two pretty experienced players.

“Dan Biggar has had a very good season with Northampton. I thought he was excellent during the Six Nations.

“We know the experience that Conor has got. The thing with our nines is that they are all different.

“So it will be interesting to see how this combination go. I’m sure Owen and Finn will have something to say too. They’ve got different strengths and they’ll get their opportunities.

“In the first game, you’re trying to make the most of it and you probably want to create combinations so not only do you play well, but the guys around you. If that happens, that has an impact on the coaching staff.

“I’m sure Conor and Dan are aware they’ve got the first opportunity together to go out and impress.”

What was the thinking behind naming four Scottish players at Murrayfield?

“I think if you’re playing in Scotland, you want a reasonable representation of Scottish players.

“We’ve got Ali there. We did speak about Finn and Chris (Harris) being on the bench.

“For those players, I think it’s important for those players to play in front of their home fans and family. It was a bit of a motivation in terms of having that Scottish representation. As a player, I would love that chance to play at home.

“They’ve fitted in well. Hamish (Watson) has been a Six Nations player of the year and I think his performances during the Six Nations speak for themselves.

“Duhan (van der Merwe) offers us something different. He was top try-scorer in the Six Nations He’s big for a winger so he’ll get some go-forward, but it’s not just his power. He’s got great footwork, he’s quick and can finish tries off.

“The two front-rowers, we were impressed with the Scottish scrum in the Six Nations. Rory (Sutherland) is incredibly explosive and powerful and Zander (Fagerson) has done a great job at tight-head as well.

“It’s a great opportunity to go out in front of their own fans this weekend.”

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