Gerry Thornley: Conor Murray should start first Lions Test match

South Africa A defeat not enough to suggest Ireland scrumhalf won’t be picked at nine

Back in 2013, Conor Murray travelled out to Australia as the Lions' third choice scrumhalf, played in the second and third Tests off the bench and had there been a fourth Test he might well have started. Four years ago, he was in his pomp and the undisputed test scrumhalf, starting all three Tests.

By contrast, this is shaping up to be quite a rollercoaster of a tour for the Munster and Irish number ‘9’. He began as seemingly the hot favourite to be the first-choice scrumhalf for the first Test, and was chosen to start the pre-tour win over Japan at Murrayfield.

This feeling was re-enforced when Warren Gatland surprised everyone, not least Murray himself, by naming him as tour captain in place of the seemingly stricken Alun Wyn Jones the day after that Japan game. If ever there was an indication that Murray was the leading man at ‘9’, that was it.

Little about his 33 minutes as a replacement when the Lions pulled away in the second-half of their 71-31 win in the Sharks sequel changed that thinking, whereupon he finally led the team out for the first time against South Africa A last Wednesday.

Now, with Jones's Lazarus-like recovery and reinstatement as tour captain, along with the distinct possibility of him leading the side next Saturday in Cape Town, the debate has shifted to Murray's position in the team. This is particularly so in the UK media, some of whom are putting forward the case for effectively dropping Murray and choosing Ali Price.

Murray didn’t have his finest game against South Africa A for sure but this has to be put in the context of the opposition, for this was the only game since the Lions landed in South Africa when the tourists were truly tested and stressed.

Intense physicality

The shadow Springboks brought an intense physicality in the tackle and counter-rucked from the off which, naturally, had a ripple effect on the Lions, especially at halfback. By some distance it was the most difficult assignment for any of the Lions’ scrumhalves in the build-up to the Tests.

Two aspects of Murray’s performance have provoked criticism. The first was the decision on the half-hour to move the ball wide and back inside the 22 to Elliot Daly, who kicked long but straight to Cheslin Kolbe. The Toulouse winger then did his thing, skipping, dummying and stepping between Chris Harris and Louis Rees-Zammit before offloading inside for Lukhanyo Am to score. Murray should have box kicked, as Gatland himself stated afterwards.

Yet, save for one overcooked box kick, Murray’s kicking was actually quite good and it’s doubtful in the extreme that he wouldn’t learn from that moment. And it was just one moment.

Then, of course, there was the passage of eight tap penalties and countless route one pick-and-jams as the South African A side were reduced to first 14, and then 13 players, nearing half-time. Rather than opt for a scrum and then use their numerical advantage away from the depleted home side’s fringe defence, they effectively played into their hosts’ hands, thus affording them the huge psychological fillip of jogging off for the interval without having conceded a point in that passage of play.

This was compounded by the less discussed decision by Owen Farrell to opt for a cross-kick, without a penalty advantage, against 13 men early in the second-half, which also went unrewarded.

Murray, as captain, has copped most of the flak for not taking a scrum in that final passage of play in the first half, or for not bringing his backs into play and seeking to stretch a significantly outnumbered defence, but that also presumes Farrell and those outside him were calling for the ball.

Keeping powder dry

Perhaps significantly too, afterwards Gatland maintained that the decision to repeatedly opt for tap penalties was the correct one. He had no issues with it. In all of this one can’t help but feel that the Lions were keeping their powder dry, and didn’t want to show their full hand.

Most probably the Lions won’t have a two-man advantage again in the Test series but you never know, but they might conceivably be hammering at the Boks’ line against 14 men at some juncture. If that comes to pass, they’ll surely have more up their sleeve than tap penalties and pick-and-goes.

There’s no doubt that Price has played well, kicking accurately, defending well, providing tempo off the base and he is skilful in open play, usually making the right decisions and sharply. He has had the most starts of all the scrumhalves but, again, his form has to be put in the context of the opposition he has faced, namely the Sigma Lions, Sharks and Stormers.

By contrast Murray has started the two toughest games, against Japan and South Africa ‘A’ (when he was kept on the pitch for 75 minutes) and, after working with him on the previous two tours, Gatland clearly respects the Munsterman as a player and a person, as evidenced by him choosing the Irish scrumhalf as temporary tour captain.

Perhaps tellingly too, Dan Biggar was Murray's partner against Japan and was then joined by Murray for the last 33 minutes in that Sharks sequel. Furthermore, Biggar was originally due to start at outhalf against South Africa 'A' but was replaced by Farrell after picking up a minor ankle sprain in training.

That would seem to point to the Test halfback partnership in the making.

Ronan O’Gara talks about some players bringing presence, and Murray has long since belonged in that category. It comes with 94 Test caps, including five for the Lions. He also brings a calmness, a low error count, that box-kicking, a footballing assuredness, excellent defending and physical strength on both sides of the ball.

All of this will be needed when the lines in the sand are being drawn in the opening stages of Saturday’s first Test.