Gatland warns Murray he needs game time before Lions tour
Scrum coach Rowntree excited by prospect of working with Furlong and McGrath
British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland with his captain Sam Warburton. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Conor Murray is still struggling to recover from the shoulder injury he sustained against Wales in the Six Nations. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images
Warren Gatland has admitted that Conor Murray’s ongoing shoulder/nerve injury is a concern for the Lions coaches and that the Munster scrumhalf, having been sidelined for six weeks, will need to play in the next four or five weeks if he is to make the plane to New Zealand.
“It is a concern,” admitted Gatland when asked about Murray’s injury after including him as one of the three scrumhalves in the 41-man squad. “He’s got a nerve issue. I spoke to the doctor yesterday. He was hoping to be fit this week. He had a setback a couple of weeks ago.
“He’s going to need to play before he gets on the plane. That’s going to be important for us. I would be reluctant to take someone to New Zealand with a neck injury who hasn’t played particularly. His last game was against Wales, on March 10th I think.
“He’s incredibly fit as a player. It’s causing him a bit of discomfort and a bit of weakness in his arm, and hopefully he’s going to be right in a couple of weeks, and the neurologist is confident he’s going to be okay. He’s had some disc problems in the past but that’s not what’s causing the issue. It’s some nerve problem that he’s got at the moment.
“Look, it’s a concern, because he is a quality player. I think he’s disappointed himself. He was hoping to be right this week for Munster. So hopefully he’s going to be right in a couple of weeks and get one or two games under his belt.”
Gatland stressed that ideally he wanted all of the squad to be starting at least one of the opening three games of the tour. He and the coaches are likely to be further handicapped by the lack of preparation time, with the Pro12 and Premiership finals taking place two days before the squad departs for New Zealand on May 29th and one week before playing a Provincial Barbarians XV in Whangarei. Were those finals to feature Saracens, Leinster and Munster, that could effectively rule 15 players out of the tour opener.
Ongoing club and provincial commitments could also restrict the Lions to having barely a third of the 41-man squad for their three-day get-togethers between now and then in Wales and Carton House. Despite all that, Gatland is convinced the Lions have assembled an altogether stronger squad than four years ago.
“The exciting thing about this squad is the competition for places and the potential combinations; players who can do a job, players who can come off the bench and have an impact. We’re very excited as coaches about that because there are lots of permutations in terms of which way we decide to go, players that we pick and combinations as well.
“One of the disappointments of 2013 is that there were two or three players who were just happy to be on tour and who didn’t compete. But looking at this squad, everyone will be thinking they’re good enough and they have a good chance of starting as number one in the Test matches.
“It was a big decision to make Sam captain because one of the things I admire about Sam is that it’s not about Sam Warburton, it’s about the team first, and he’d be the first one to understand that if someone is better than him in the number seven position, whether it’s Seán [O’Brien] or Justin [Tipuric] or whoever else, and we picked him over Sam, then Sam would understand that. The team comes first, it’s not about Sam Warburton, and that was definitely one of the decision that made it easy for me to select him as captain.”
It’s one thing the coaches believing they can down the All Blacks in New Zealand, it’s another the players actually doing so.
“That’s kind of the challenge, isn’t it?” said Gatland. “As coaches, you’re trying to deliver that message about confidence and self-belief. You’re not too sure when you get that glazed look from the players if they honestly believe that.
“So Ireland doing that in Chicago was pretty special. Especially considering at 27-8 or whatever it was at half-time, you think they’re going to comfortably do it and to see the All Blacks come back and almost look like they were going to steal it and then for the Irish to, in that last 10 minutes, put them under pressure. And to see some of those world-class players be human, make some mistakes, show some frailties, that gives you that self-belief and confidence.
“Always as a coach you’re trying to deliver that message, to put players and teams under pressure and they are human and they will make mistakes.
“Andy Farrell being a coach with England and Ireland, the Ireland players having won and some of the England players having won in 2012 . . . you’ve got to go there believing.
“The other thing people don’t understand is that there are teams who go to New Zealand and they don’t go there culturally prepared. What I mean by that is, particularly in 2011 [for the World Cup], teams rocked up there not prepared culturally for what’s going to happen.”
He spoke of the squad being prepared for a “Marae” welcome in Waitangi on the first Sunday, accepting the Maori challenges, and responding with speeches and songs in kind.
He has recommended some essential viewing for the squad and backroom staff. “I’ve said it to the staff as well; go and watch Hunt for Wilderpeople with Sam Neill in it, or there’s a film called Whale Ride or another called Boy. It kind of gives you an understanding of New Zealand humour, New Zealand culture a little bit.
“It’s a tough place, a really tough place to go to and tour. The intensity, the knowledge of the nation . . . it’s not going to be like Australia in 2013 when we arrived in Melbourne and all of the people were saying: ‘Who are the people wearing red jerseys?’ They had no ideas the Lions were in town.
“Wherever we go in New Zealand, we’re going to be inundated by fans who are incredibly excited about us being there and also very knowledgeable about the Lions, the players and the performances, and the expectation as well.”
“I thought he [Furlong] was one of the standout players of the Six Nations, never mind the standout props. He’s very impressive. He’s come from nowhere. High work-rate, a big man. Excellent scrummager, but the amount of times he will touch the ball, do the right things with the ball. His work-rate is exemplary and I’m really looking forward to working with him.
“With my speciality around the scrum, it would be those Irish props – I’ve been a big fan of watching them. I was actually speaking to Stuart Lancaster about them last week. He was bigging them up to me. Proactive scrummagers but they can also play as well.”