Joe Harvey Column: Not quite roaring yet

Warren Gatland confirmed in his post-match press conference that Alun Wyn Jones is out of the Lions tour

I’m currently on the train home from Murrayfield. To describe today as having been long is putting it mildly.

Train followed train, but when I finally got to Murrayfield, found the relocated media accreditation centre and eventually my seat, some eight hours had already passed since the alarm first rang out this morning. 

Getting an early glimpse at the Lions before Warren Gatland’s men fly to South Africa was a more than good enough reason to get to the Scottish capital and although the team are not quite roaring yet, the early signs are promising. 

What must firstly be addressed is the loss of Alun Wyn Jones to injury. The most experienced Lion by a country mile, the Welsh lock’s loss is huge. Of course, he is the man charged with leading the Lions in South Africa and there is now a gaping hole to fill in leadership. 

Earlier in the week, Owen Farrell was spoken about as someone universally looked at within the set-up as a leader and could get given that imaginary armband. But Farrell’s place in the starting team is by no means assured, making you believe that it is more likely that a Ken Owens, Maro Itoje or Conor Murray could be the men given the extra responsibility.

To be honest, the loss of AWJ is frankly crushing. It is uncertain right now who will be called up in the Osprey’s place, but the names of Jonny Gray and James Ryan are never too far from mind, Gatland saying that he and his coaches will have to make a sharp decision on who steps into the breach.

“I was speaking to the physios, and they’ve spoken to Alun Wyn,” Gatland said. “He understands that the very best-case scenario is that he may get back for the Tests, but we need to pull someone and get them PCR tested and hopefully get them on the flight with us tomorrow.

“We’re discussing a couple of names at the moment with the coaches. I was doing that, it was a priority, but unfortunately I got called away to do a press conference. I’m going back to finalise that after I’ve spoken to you guys.

“We’ll make that call and also potentially who’s going to take over as tour captain as well. We’ve got a leadership group which is pretty experienced, so it’s not something that urgently needs to be done, but we’re just aware of who potentially steps into that role.”

With Luke Cowan-Dickie having taken a pretty nasty knee to the face in the Premiership Final too, it seems as though Ronan Kelleher will be added to the squad after several weeks of toiling away on Jersey as a result of Gatland and his staff not having enough hookers available to them.

Thankfully the injury sustained by Justin Tipuric was nothing more than a ‘stinger’ according to Gatland, meaning there won’t have to be any more phone calls tonight and mad dashes from players to the airport tomorrow morning.

Obviously, injuries are inherent with rugby and the Lions coaches would have been well prepared for such an event, but it doesn’t lessen the blow. 

Injuries happen to people, more so than they happen to players. Players can be replaced, but people can’t. One of my favourite sportswriters is a man called Chris Wesseling, who sadly lost his battle with cancer earlier this year, and he often posited this question, ‘How do you reconcile the essential meaningless of sports?’.

This was a question he would ask a prospective sportswriter should he be hiring one and, in his words, the answer was ‘At its best sports is, look at what humans can do’. For me, that says it all.

We worship the likes of Alun Wyn Jones, well I certainly do, so to see mountains of men break, a part of you does too. For me, the Lions won’t be the same without Wales’ captain and naturally I wish him all the best in his recovery, because to see the best unable to play is more than saddening.

Now, to somewhat happier thoughts. I remember on the day this team was announced on Tuesday, Gatland described how quickly this group of players have gelled and that was clear to see. Aside from a couple of dodgy rucks and a period in which Japan had a lot of possession, there really isn’t much to complain about.

Josh Adams, Duhan van der Merwe and Tadhg Beirne were my players of the match, not only because of their try scoring efforts, but the way they went about their business. They were energetic and clearly wanting to make their case for selection. There are plenty of warm-up fixtures to come, but this game was a good place to start.

Then, to look at Japan, I was hugely impressed by them. Their game against the Sunwolves showed that there were cracks after a long time without being able to play because of the global pandemic, but they played some wonderful running rugby.

There were offloads all over the shop, I could watch Kotaro Matsushima play every day of the week and never get bored, Kazuki Himeno is an absolute star and Lappies Labuschagne is immense in defence. 

Now, we knew most of these things, but after so long having not played international rugby, it was brilliant to see Jamie Joseph’s team showing the attributes that made them every fan’s second favourite team at the last World Cup. 

Right, nearly home and off to Leicester tomorrow for the England A game. No rest for the wicked.


England Fixtures