Is Conor Murray the right man to skipper the British & Irish Lions?
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CAPE TOWN - Following Alun Wyn Jones’ dramatic exit as captain due to a dislocated shoulder against Japan, coach Warren Gatland made an unexpected choice in appointing Conor Murray as the new skipper of the British and Irish Lions for their tour of South Africa.
Even the Irish scrumhalf himself expressed his surprise in an interview with Sky Sports: “A little bit, to be honest.
I didn’t even think about it. I knew that Al was out, and then you look around the squad and there are so many contenders.
“Warren asked me just before the cap ceremony, and it was surreal.
“I still don’t have my head around it, but it’s an unbelievable honour.
“It’s something that I never thought would be possible.
“I didn’t think about it long. I said, ‘Absolutely, it’ll be a massive honour. Thank you very much for this opportunity’.
“Then you kind of think about how big it is, and then obviously my phone has gone a bit crazy since it was announced.”
It is a big call in more ways than one from Gatland.
While Murray is undoubtedly the first choice No 9 in the squad, ahead of Gareth
Davies and Ali Price, he is certainly not the same player that featured prominently in Ireland’s remarkable first ever victory over the All Blacks in 2016 – he was the Man of the Match – or in the 38-3 thrashing of the Springboks in 2017.
Some pundits feel that England’s Danny Care, who was outstanding for Harlequins in their Premiership final victory over Exeter last weekend, as well as the likes of Wales’ Tomos Williams and Ben Youngs of England should have been in the tour party to challenge Murray for the Test berth. But they are not, so the Ireland star is sure to start against the Springboks on July 24.
However, is he the right choice to skipper the Lions?
He has no captaincy experience to speak of, and is not known as a big talker – but that doesn’t necessarily mean he cannot be in charge. Gatland, though, had a number of other candidates to consider: Owen Farrell and Stuart Hogg, who captain England and Scotland respectively, as well as Ken Owens, who took over from Jones against Japan. Maro Itoje has led the England Under-20s to the world title, and is regarded as someone who will captain his country in future.
Farrell, Hogg and Owens are not definite Test starters, though, so that would’ve placed a question mark over them as captains.
Itoje would have continued the Lions tradition of having a lock as the skipper in South Africa, following on from Willie John McBride, Martin Johnson, Paul O’Connell and Jones before his injury.
Apart from that, Itoje has a real presence in any team with his combative, all-action style of play, and was a serious contender anyway before Jones was chosen. But Gatland has made his choice, and there is no doubt that Murray will be respected within the Lions set-up.
The 32-year-old halfback has 94 Test caps (89 for Ireland, five for the Lions), is now on his third tour, and has never lost a Test series for them (2-1 win in Australia in 2013 and a 1-1 draw in New Zealand in 2017).
“Conor is an outstanding rugby player, and is held in the highest regard with both the players and coaches,” Gatland said in announcing Murray’s appointment.
“As a three-time Lions tourist, he knows what will be required as captain, and I am certain he will lead the squad with excellence. He will also be well supported by an experienced leadership group.”
The Munster stalwart’s cool temperament, quick service and inch-perfect box kicks will test the South African defence in every respect, and his battle with Springbok scrumhalf Faf de Klerk will be one of the highlights of the tour …