Lion king Conor Murray not getting ahead of himself

Lions captain won’t take his place in the test team for granted

 Conor Murray hoping to strike the right balance in South Africa. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Conor Murray hoping to strike the right balance in South Africa. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

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An immediate and widespread presumption on foot of Conor Murray’s appointment as British & Irish Lions captain is that he will probably be the starting scrumhalf come the test series against the Springboks. It is a presumption that one person above all cannot afford to make, namely Murray himself.

If anything, it will make Murray more determined to ensure his own performances earn him that ‘9’ jersey he wore for all three tests in New Zealand four years ago. He wouldn’t want to be a non-playing captain, so is not assuming there are any guarantees.

“Yeah, it doesn’t mean that for a minute,” Murray said on Tuesday. “I think that’s completely separate. We’ve seen it before on Lions tours when captains haven’t started.

“That’s why I feel really strongly that I’ve got to remain myself and keep doing what I’ve been doing because the aim is to be in contention for the Test day squad and play in the Test matches.

“That’s what makes the whole tour so special, having been on it twice before, playing in the Test matches is what it’s all about. That’s what we’re all still trying to do and I don’t for a second think it’s a given. If anything you want to be at the top of your game and playing as best as you can possibly play.”

The tour matches and the tests are going to be hollow affairs, what with no fans in attendance for the first time ever, even if the players have become accustomed to empty stadia.

Murray admits that after his initial selection his thoughts gave away to the absence of fans, before the excitement of his appointment as captain extended to his family.

“It made you think of how cool it would be to have the fans here but there’s far more important things going on outside this tour and you’ve got to respect that.

“It would be lovely to have them there but I think most if not all the players are very used to playing without fans and we understand what it is. It would be great, but it doesn’t take away from how special the Lions is, how much of a challenge it is in the world champions’ back yard.”

In this and much else you feel a little sorry for Murray and the rest of the squad. Cocooned in a restrictive bubble, this will not be an easy tour for the management and least of all the players. There will be no safaris, no visits to townships or schools, no nights out and mingling with fans, no direct contact with family and friends, not even sponsors outings which they might have endured previously but they will come to miss on this tour.

But, ahead of their opening game against the Lions on Saturday, Murray doesn’t envisage keeping players motivated as a major part of his remit.

“I really don’t think it takes away from the opportunity we have as a player group to play against South Africa. We’re very lucky to be able to do this given what’s going on outside our environment.

“No, at the moment the read on the mood in camp is a really positive one, we’re training really hard, we’re motivated people, there’s an excitement about the weekend, an excitement about arriving in South Africa and getting up and running here.”

The rugby itself, of course, will be a hell of a distraction, and that looms more clearly into view when the Springboks play their first game in 19 months in the first of two warm-up matches against Georgia in Pretoria on Friday night. Essential viewing in the squad’s team room in their bi-secure bubble.

“We’re here to play them in a three test series so yeah there’ll be big interest in that. There’s a feeling since we landed here in South Africa that it’s time for the serious stuff, so yeah, it’ll all kick off now.”

Murray is particularly familiar with the Springboks’ head coach Jacques Nienaber from the latter’s time as defence coach at Munster, and there’s the influence of Rassie Erasmus and Felix Jones in the background, which may or may not afford him little insights.

“They’re a formidable coaching staff. From watching them at the World Cup and having played at Munster under them, there are similarities in what they were doing and what they were showing. But everyone is always doing analysis on each other and everyone knows each other as well as they can.

“If there’s something that pops into my head that I remember about a certain way that Jacques or Rassie would have wanted us to play and we see it in the South African side then that might be a little insight.

“At the same time, with Felix there, he’s always thinking about different things and you have to be prepared for surprises because you don’t always get what you’re expecting when you run out onto the pitch. You have to be adaptable.

“It’s a bit of an insight having worked under them but it could be completely different.”

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