Conor Murray’s appointment as captain a huge recognition of his Lions status

Lions tours have marked benchmarks in Munster man’s career, and never more so than now

 Conor Murray in action during the 1888 Cup match between the  Lions and Japan at BT Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photograph:  Stu Forster/Getty Images

Conor Murray in action during the 1888 Cup match between the Lions and Japan at BT Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

 

Nothing is cast in stone on Lions tours but one of the more obvious conclusions to be drawn from Warren Gatland’s leftfield decision to appoint Conor Murray as captain is that the Munster and Irish scrumhalf is not only seen as their first-choice ‘9’ but also one of the probable starters in the Test team.

On foot of Alun Wyn Jones being ruled out, Owen Farrell, Ken Owens (who assumed the captaincy against Japan), even the oft-touted Maro Itoje and perhaps even the Scottish captain Stuart Hogg, would have seemed more obvious alternatives.

Murray has heretofore happily left captaincy duties at Munster and Ireland to the likes of Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Rory Best, Johnny Sexton or whomever.

He has only ever captained Munster once, against the Ospreys in September 2014, and never Ireland, which means he has little or no experience to fall back upon for what is a highly pressurised role. One ventures that teammates will be as surprised as the rest of us.

That makes his anointment particularly bold, but Gatland has never been conventional in his choices of captain. He made Sam Warburton the second youngest captain of Wales at 22 and the youngest captain of the Lions at 24, and at the same time had no qualms about inserting Alun Wyn Jones for the decisive third Test in 2013 or Peter O’Mahony for the first Test four years ago.

Gatland is a superb judge of character as much as players and he understands the dynamics of a Lions’ tour as much as anyone. In that regard, Murray’s appointment is a huge compliment to his ability, presence and status in the Lions make-up. It really is.

Lest we forget, prior to Murray, no Irish scrumhalf had gone on a Lions tour since John Robbie and Colin Patterson in 1980. Now he is on his third, and only 33 players in total, and six Irish players, have previously done that.

Murray’s rugby roots are steeped in Limerick. His father Gerry introduced him to the game at under-8s mini rugby in Garryowen, where his maternal grandfather, Cornelius ‘Con’ Roche, had been a stalwart of the club.

He didn’t take to it immediately, but his love of the game was honed in St Munchin’s, before Young Munster, Garryowen again and the Munster Academy began turning him into the player who would become Ireland’s greatest scrumhalf.

Murray has always had a diligent work ethic and his career has been an almost continuous and steady incline from those Garryowen and Academy days, save for the neck injury which delayed his seasonal return until the end of November at the start of the 2018-19 season.

Imperious best

He lost a little confidence in his ability to run with the ball and his form dipped, but this season he has been back to his imperious best, as evidenced in his performance in the win over England last March. Not every Irish fan seems to appreciate what Brian O’Driscoll has called the “calming” presence and reassurance he and Johnny Sexton, the most prolific Irish half-back partnership ever, bring to the Irish team.

As well as Murray’s decision-making and box kicking, the speed and accuracy of his pass through the air, there’s that that assured all-round footballing ability, be it fielding a high ball, finding space with his kicking or linking with teammates, in open play. He is also an exceptional defender.

Admittedly, against Japan on Saturday, Kotaro Matsushima did him like a kipper but there’s no shame in that. The Japanese wizard has done that to many opponents and will do so again.

Murray also recovered quickly to force a turnover and when you see him sniping as he did on a couple of occasions last Saturday, you know he’s in a good place. Murray looked fit and on top of his game, and at ease in the Lions’ environment.

The first piece of advice Jones offered Murray is to be himself and it will help the 32-year-old Murray that he is by nature a relaxed, even-tempered individual who isn’t easily fazed and doesn’t wilt under pressure.

His appointment as captain will be criticised and his performances as captain will be closely scrutinised. He’ll need that calming temperament in the coming weeks. It will be fascinating to see how he performs.

Touring environments agree with him, such as the trek to South Africa in the summer of 2016 when scoring a try in Ireland’s historic first Test win over the Springboks in Cape Town.

His goal-kicking could come in handy too. Coming off the bench for Munster against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, he nonchalantly landed the match-winning penalty form 57 metres with distance to spare.

He has also flourished in his three World Cups and two previous Lions tours to date. In the 2011 World Cup, he went out as third-choice and finished starting the quarter-final.

It was a similar story on the 2013 Lions tour, which he began as third-choice and had there been a fourth Test he might well have started it. He also benefitted hugely from Rob Howley’s coaching and both Munster and Ireland reaped the dividends immediately.

Come the 2017 Lions tour he was a key man in the Lions’ recovering from the lost first Test to draw the series against the All Blacks and there was little doubt he would start all three Tests.

Lions tours have marked significant benchmarks in Murray’s career. And never more so than now.

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