Warren Gatland’s appointment of Conor Murray as the British & Irish Lions captain sees one of the best brains in world rugby take over the Lions leading role, writes Oliver Keohane.
When Alun Wyn Jones walked off eight minutes into the Lions opening warm-up match against Japan this past Saturday, his face gave a diagnosis before any doctor was necessary to determine the severity of his injury. His tour was over. Many thought England captain Owen Farrell would be the obvious choice to replace Jones as captain, but Warren Gatland decided to entrust Irish scrumhalf Conor Murray to lead the Lions into South Africa.
It is an interesting and astute appointment, and to have the rugby intellect of Murray guiding the Lions game-plan, from a position as integral to the flow of the game as scrumhalf, is comforting consolation for the loss of the experience of Jones.
Mark Keohane, in his book The Chosen 23, picked Conor Murray as his best international counterpart to Fourie Du Preez to have played the game since 1992. He described him as such:
”Murray, in partnership with flyhalf Jonny Sexton, was the driving force behind Ireland’s march to a first ever world No 1 ranking. Murray was massive for the British & Irish Lions in the 1-all drawn series against the All Blacks in 2017 and when Ireland won big in the past decade it was usually on the back of a big Conor Murray performance.
His kicking from the base of the scrum was second only to Du Preez’s, his goalkicking is an additional strength and his physicality makes him the perfect fit for my World Dream Team starting XV.”
Murray, huge in the drawn series to a 2017 All Blacks side that was the most dominant in world rugby at the time, travels to South Africa for his third British & Irish Lions series. He boasts 89 test caps for Ireland in which he has scored 100 points, five out of a possible six Tests for the British & Irish Lions, and has travelled to three World Cups to represent his country.
Murray scored a try in Ireland’s first win over the Springboks in South Africa in 2016 and later that year scored again in Chicago, as Ireland beat the All Blacks for the first time ever. He also started every game in Ireland’s 2018 Six Nations win, which saw them claim the Grand Slam too, and in his Six Nations career he has assisted 25 tries, eight more than any other player.
The 32-year old is one of the most experienced players in the squad, and has been the beneficiary of playing his international rugby next to Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Sexton, two of the best flyhalves to have played the game. Murray’s strength is in his all-round abilities, and as mentioned in The Chosen 23, not only does he have an incredible tactical kicking game, but can kick for goal too. Murray is also 6ft2 and against a South African pack, his physical presence will be of huge importance not only in asserting the type of rugby the Lions will want to play, but in making sure that as a captain, his presence on the field is felt.
The Lions would not have been at a loss for quality leadership in Farrell, but in Murray I believe they have the best rugby brain in their squad leading them out to battle. They have a scrumhalf who can mix it with the forwards in a series where he won’t be afforded the privilege of clean ball at the base of the rucks, but they also lose nothing in terms of tactical go forward off the back of Murray’s service and boot.
WATCH: CONOR MURRAY IN ACTION