he Lions return to action on Saturday in Edinburgh against Japan in a fixture that is at once a mere curtain-raiser, vital preparation for the Tests that follow and the closest this tour like no other will get to normality.
The game is on Channel 4, whetting the appetite of a wider audience. It should be a wonderful occasion, especially as it is in Scotland, who are better represented by this squad than for many years. The game is a celebration of the Lions in front of their own fans, who will be travelling from as far and wide as they are allowed for their one live look at the team.
But on a shortened tour, with just five matches in South Africa before the First Test, it is also a crucial jostle for positions. This is the first of three matches over the next fortnight in which Gatland will give the whole squad at least one start to prove they deserve a go against the Springboks.
How will Conor Murray and Dan Biggar, who have the look of a Test starting duo, blend? Can Ireland centres Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw lay down a marker? So, too, Tadgh Beirne and Justin Tipuric on the flanks.
It is just the third time the Lions have played on home soil, and the first since the 2005 tour of New Zealand got off to a stuttering start in a 25-25 draw against Argentina in Cardiff. Assistant coach Gregor Townsend reckons Japan — thrilling quarter-finalists and the neutral’s darling at the 2019 World Cup — will be the toughest opening game the Lions have ever played.
Certainly, Japan — for whom this is a once-in-a-career fixture — will pose a very different threat to the brawn of the Boks. Their fast-paced style will test the Lions, and that many players from the Celtic nations have not played for weeks will not help them, either. The result matters, as it does every time they play. A winning habit is key.
Their off-field unity has been helped by the trip to Jersey, where they clearly had a lovely time. Restrictions were considerably laxer than they will face in South Africa, where the third wave of Covid is going from bad to worse. This cannot afford to be a porous bubble; it will be a ring of steel.
This tour will test the Lions like never before, so Jersey represented a key bonding period, even if most England-based players missed half of it and the Exeter four never made it at all. For Townsend — part of the legendary Lions side of 1997 that held a lock-in at a Surrey pub before departing for South Africa — it brought back memories.
“There were a few things going on that meant there were stories [in the papers] the next day,” he said of the Jersey camp. “There were songs being sung — and we didn’t do that in 1997.”
The Lions were limited in their movements, but that did not stop them having fun. “I think it was called the Team Room pub,” joked Townsend. “We went to a couple of restaurants, but it’s been more back at the hotel where we’ve been having those periods together.”
Now, the talking and the drinking stops and the real business starts, as one of sport’s great institutions returns, looking and feeling just slightly different.