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Gatland's shock call sees experienced Conor Murray lead the Lions

The Limerick man isn’t a captain for Munster or Ireland.

Conor Murray celebrates Robbie Henshaw's try today.
Conor Murray celebrates Robbie Henshaw's try today.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE FACT THAT Conor Murray doesn’t captain Munster or Ireland meant he was never consistently in the wider conversation about leading the Lions.

But Warren Gatland has made a sensational decision to appoint the Limerick man as the new tour skipper in the wake of Alun Wyn Jones being ruled out after his shoulder dislocation against Japan earlier today.

It is a remarkable reward for three-time Lion Murray and underlines his sheer importance to Gatland as the squad prepares to board their flight to South Africa tomorrow. 

Murray was honest recently in admitting that he was anxious on the day the Lions named their squad, concerned that he might not have made the cut this time around. Now he sets off on the tour as the official captain.

It’s a proud night for all in Limerick, where Murray played club rugby with Garryowen and Young Munster, while coming through the schools game with St Munchin’s College. Limerick has always taken pride in Murray’s exploits but Lions captaincy is a new level of achievement.

The 32-year-old has been a superb Lion. In 2013, he went as the third-choice and very nearly ended up starting a Test, playing the last two off the bench and coming home with his confidence enhanced.

In 2017, he was the undisputed number one at scrum-half, starting all three Tests against the All Blacks as Gatland’s men drew the series.

Murray isn’t renowned as a vocal leader. He’s not known as someone who exudes traditional leadership qualities. He certainly doesn’t roar and shout. Instead, he leads with composure, consistency, and the ability to nail his roles for the team.

conor-murray-celebrates-after-the-game-with-jack-conan Murray with Jack Conan after the Lions beat Japan. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Gatland and co. clearly see him as a certain starter for the Test series against the Springboks, which most people have felt was the case. Ali Price and Gareth Davies are fine scrum-halves but have nowhere near the body of work behind them that Murray does.

Gatland may have looked at the likes of Owen Farrell, Ken Owens, Iain Henderson, and Stuart Hogg – dropped by Exeter in recent weeks – and not felt that they are nailed-on for the Test team.

Gatland will have seen Murray at ease around others at training camp in Jersey over the past fortnight too. A personable character, Murray is well-liked by virtually everyone he has ever played with. He might not be the most outspoken person or the loudest voice, but he does possess people skills.

Murray has also been around the block and not just with the Lions. He has been Ireland’s first-choice scrum-half for a decade now and has a Grand Slam, two other Six Nations titles, and a win over the All Blacks on his 89-cap CV with his country.

He has repeatedly come in for criticism in Ireland and while there have been lulls in his form, as for any rugby player, at least some of it is simply because people want to see fresh faces. 

Murray has, of course, had some tough times and it took him a while to rebound from a neck injury in 2018, when he was understandably aggrieved about the rumours that swirled as he recovered. But Murray was soon back at the top of his game for Ireland.

It’s his ability as a scrum-half that has led him to this shock Lions captaincy as much as anything else. Never before across the course of his long professional career has he been seen as a skipper but Gatland has made a huge decision and Murray will lead the Lions.

As for the injury replacements, Gatland has thrown up another surprise by picking Adam Beard to come in for Jones, when Ireland’s James Ryan or Scotland’s Jonny Gray were the favourites.

It transpires that Ryan has been dealing with a groin injury in Ireland camp this week although it’s unclear how serious it is.

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warren-gatland-and-conor-murray Gatland and Conor Murray at training camp in Jersey. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The 6ft 8ins Beard had a superb Six Nations as Wales were crowned champions, combining physical edge with a pleasing skill level in attack.

In the back row, it is another big blow for the Lions to lose Justin Tipuric, who had a good shot at starting the Tests in the number seven shirt. A shoulder injury rules him out and Wales’ Josh Navidi is the beneficiary.

30-year-old Navidi had three starts at blindside flanker for Wales in the Six Nations and, again, is a powerful man who has good breakdown and contact skills. 

All in all, this has been a crazy day for the Lions on the eve of their departure to South Africa. They’ve lost their skipper and another experienced forward, and Gatland has thrown up a big surprise.

Conor Murray will fly out to South Africa as the Lions captain.

- This article was updated at 11.10pm to correct Conor Murray’s number of wins against New Zealand with Ireland from two to one.

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Murray Kinsella

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