Lions Tour: Gatland sees Murray as key part of keeping things tight early on

Head coach believes side need to make a better start to second Test in order to wrap up series

In the first Test, Conor Murray's experience, calmness and game management proved ideal in helping the British & Irish Lions close out the game. Now, his promotion to the starting line-up is with a view to bringing those qualities from the off as Warren Gatland targets an improved first half in Saturday's second Test in Cape Town (5pm Irish time).

“He was good when he came on, and it’s going to be tight in that first 20 or 30 minutes,” said the head coach. “The way South Africa tend to play, if we look at the A game and this game, they try and get in front and look to hold on.

“That first 20 or 30 minutes is pretty important for us. We have been happy with the way we have finished in the second half of both those games, and felt strong. And potentially the game might open up, in the tempo of the game, which is something we think Ali [Price] can bring, maybe in that second half, and the same with the other players that are on the bench.”

Mako Vunipola rotates with Rory Sutherland at loosehead, while Chris Harris – "we are expecting him to be incredibly direct" – is at outside centre.


“They’re going to be incredibly aggressive, they’ll run hard, so it’s about staying in that arm wrestle. That’s the message because there isn’t a lot of space and opportunity in the first 20 or 30 minutes. They play very little rugby in their own half so it’s a territory battle and we’ve got to make sure that the message is if we’re 6-6 at 30 minutes or 9-6 ahead going into half-time, then that puts us in a pretty good place.

“We don’t want to be 17-3 down like we were in the A game where it’s a much bigger challenge to come back. Our focus is on us starting well and making sure the game management is really good.”

Taulupe Faletau is promoted ahead of Hamish Watson to the bench where Elliot Daly's inclusion means, surprisingly, Liam Williams misses out, as Gatland resisted Welsh overtures to have Faletau start ahead of Jack Conan.

“I just think that he’s kind of been unheralded a little bit,” Gatland said of Conan. “Some people sometimes look for the spectacular stuff. It’s not something I do. I looked at all the things he did well and he doesn’t make many mistakes. His carrying was excellent, his footwork was good. He was very, very solid. He didn’t miss any tackles.

“As a loose forward trio, they can be better and you want to keep that combination. Toby can have an impact coming off the bench. Sometimes you make changes, but we were very pleased with the way Jack played last weekend.”

In 13 previous Lions tours of South Africa the team which won the first Test went on to win the series save for 1955, when the Springboks recovered to draw a four-Test series, but Gatland knows there will be a shift in both sides’ mindset this week.

“Well they’re going to be desperate, aren’t they? They’re desperate to stay in the series and we’ve got a chance of winning the series on Saturday.

“We’ve spoken to the players about that, making sure that they’re mentally right because you don’t want to be using your get-out-of-jail card, which is going to the third Test. You want to make the most of the opportunity we’ve created by winning the first Test and hopefully seal the series on Saturday.”

Gatland admitted the toughest part of the job was leaving so many players (16 in total) disappointed at not making either Test match squad to date, but informed them they had a huge role in preparing the ‘23’ this week.

“If we get mentally right then we have a chance of winning this series and if we’re not and we lose the second Test, then you’ll probably see a number of changes going into the third Test. If we do win the win the series, you’ll probably see a number of changes for the third Test. Hopefully for those guys who have missed out there’s a lot of motivation to stay focused.”

Gatland also laughed off Rassie Erasmus’s use of Twitter to highlight Springboks’ grievances as “a separate sideshow”, adding: “I haven’t really taken much notice of it.” Nor would Gatland be following suit.

“I don’t even know how to get onto it to set up a Twitter account. I think I would end up getting too much abuse so there is no point me doing that.”

BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Stuart Hogg (Exeter Chiefs, Scotland); Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, England), Chris Harris (Gloucester Rugby, Scotland), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster Rugby, Ireland), Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors, Scotland); Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints, Wales), Conor Murray (Munster Rugby, Ireland); Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster Rugby, Ireland); Maro Itoje (Saracens, England), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, Wales, capt); Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, England), Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, England), Jack Conan (Leinster Rugby, Ireland).

Replacements: Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales), Rory Sutherland (Worcester Warriors, Scotland), Kyle Sinckler (Bristol Bears, England), Tadhg Beirne (Munster Rugby, Ireland), Taulupe Faletau (Bath Rugby, Wales), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland), Owen Farrell (Saracens, England), Elliot Daly (Saracens, England).

SOUTH AFRICA: Willie le Roux (Toyota Verblitz); Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse), Lukhanyo Am (Cell C Sharks), Damian de Allende (Munster), Makazole Mapimpi (Cell C Sharks); Handré Pollard (Montpellier), Faf de Klerk (Sale Sharks); Steven Kitshoff (DHL Stormers), Bongi Mbonambi (DHL Stormers), Frans Malherbe (DHL Stormers); Eben Etzebeth (Toulon), Franco Mostert (Honda Heat); Siya Kolisi (Cell C Sharks, capt), Jasper Wiese (Leicester Tigers).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times