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SA tour means the most to new Lions captain Conor Murray

June 29, 2021 GMT
British and Irish Lions' Conor Murray, left, is tackled by Japan's Kaito Shigeno during a friendly rugby match between British and Irish Lions and Japan at the Murrayfield stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland, Saturday, June 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
British and Irish Lions' Conor Murray, left, is tackled by Japan's Kaito Shigeno during a friendly rugby match between British and Irish Lions and Japan at the Murrayfield stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland, Saturday, June 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

Shock and awe on his stubbled face, Conor Murray hesitated to accept the captaincy of the British and Irish Lions.

Then the hesitation passed.

Murray was on nobody’s radar for the job, not even his own, until the question was popped to him by Lions coach Warren Gatland on Saturday night.

The Lions were leaving for their tour of South Africa the next day and Gatland had just reluctantly released Alun Wyn Jones after his first-choice captain dislocated a shoulder in the warmup match against Japan.

Speculation was rife that the pressure job would go to Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Ken Owens or Stuart Hogg. Instead, Gatland chose a guy who has never captained Ireland, and led his Munster province just once, seven years ago. Gatland is canny that way. He made Sam Warburton the youngest captain of Wales and the Lions.

“I am certain he will lead the squad with excellence,” Gatland said.

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Murray has the requisite experience, smarts, respect, and likability, but what was probably the deciding factor was he’s pretty much a starter for the three tests against the Springboks from late July. A handy backup goalkicker, too.

“Conor wouldn’t really see himself as a captain, but he would have been in all our leadership groups over the years,” former Lions and Ireland teammate Sean O’Brien said. “He has so much experience now. I do often forget that this is his third tour. He’s one of the driving forces in the Irish team. He’s definitely going to be a test starter, if he stays fit.”

Fitness has been a significant issue for Murray for three years. On Ireland’s mid-2018 tour of Australia, he took some bangs to the neck. Not until he returned home did a disk bulge and he had to take months out.

Back in the game, his confidence was a little off, understandably. The passes and work at the base of rucks weren’t as zippy, the box kicking not as brilliant. He wasn’t sniping for opportunities either though his tackling remained sure.

Murray’s increasing critics noted he was still good but not as consistently good as pre-neck injury. The sense that Ireland’s No. 9 jersey was no longer Murray’s preserve emboldened local rivals Kieran Marmion, Luke McGrath, John Cooney, Craig Casey and Jamison Gibson-Park that the jersey could be theirs. They and the critics drove him to prove them wrong.

In the most recent Six Nations, Murray started in the opening loss to Wales then a hamstring issue in training sidelined him against France, Italy, and Scotland. His Lions hopes were fading until Lions jerseys arrived at Ireland’s hotel for head shots and Murray remembered the good times in it: The series win against Australia in 2013, the drawn series against New Zealand in 2017 when he started every test.

He looked in the mirror, looked down at the jersey, and thought, ”‘Jeez, this would be really cool to wear the jersey again and have a good crack off it.’”

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For the last match against England, Murray was made the starter because, coach Andy Farrell said, he’s a big game player. As Ireland crushed England, Murray was efficient, solid, and reliable.

That performance likely clinched his Lions spot. Also helping his cause was the decision by England scrumhalf Ben Youngs to be unavailable for a second straight Lions tour.

Murray, 32 years and 92 tests old, was still nervous until his name was read out.

“This (tour) means the most, as I probably had to work the hardest for this one, over the last four years, with ups and downs,” he said. “It was a massive relief.”

He added: “Having started every test on the last tour, anything less than that, this time, would leave a bad taste in your mouth.”

This tour should taste good then.

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