Conor Murray is on his third Lions tour

Credit: Sportsfile

Peter O’Mahony is better placed than most to tell Conor Murray, a long-time colleague with Munster and Ireland, that Warren Gatland does not mind moving the captaincy around.

O’Mahony, of course, led the British and Irish Lions in the first Test against New Zealand four years ago. After a chastening 30-15 defeat for the tourists at Eden Park, Sam Warburton was reinstated as skipper. O’Mahony did not feature at all in either of the remaining two Tests.

His fate reflected the voracious competition for Test match places on these trips and how Gatland must make selection decisions based on the balance of any given match-day squad. And that is also why Murray was a logical choice to replace Alun Wyn Jones as captain in 2021.

The scrum-half is as certain a Test starter as the Lions have among the 37 players that flew out to Johannesburg on Sunday night. Let us look at some other potential skippers in comparison. The form of Iain Henderson, Courtney Lawes and Tadhg Beirne suggests that Maro Itoje is not absolutely guaranteed a back-five berth.

Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson impressed against Japan

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Ken Owens and Jamie George must contend with the tenacious tearaway that is Luke Cowan-Dickie at hooker. The performances of both Dan Biggar and Bundee Aki at the weekend will not have helped Owen Farrell’s prospects of squeezing into the first-choice midfield.

Murray is on his third tour, having played in a total five Tests. He came off the bench twice for Mike Phillips against the Wallabies eight years ago – more on that later – and then started all three Test encounters in New Zealand in 2017.

His experiences with the Lions stand as an obvious advantage for him over Ali Price and Gareth Davies. Besides that, though, Murray is a neat fit for the tactical plans that Gatland and his coaches will implement in their attempt to beat the Springboks.

Conor Murray snipes for the Lions on the 2013 tour of Australia

Credit: AP

Clearly, there are limitations on how much one can read into the 28-10 victory over Japan on Saturday. South Africa represent vastly different opponents and the Lions will have been holding back a few tactical nuances. That said, aside from a few scruffy moments, Murray’s performance underlined what he can offer over the coming weeks.

Front-line defence

Back in 2013, a 24-year-old Murray was christened “a poor man’s Mike Phillips” by his senior squad mate. Phillips reprised the amusing moniker this weekend in a congratulatory tweet:

Murray being picked as Captain, is a great choice! Very likeable guy and he’s a starter for sure. The poor man’s Mike Phillips has done well. 👌😜

— Mike Phillips (@mikephillips009) June 27, 2021

Murray being picked as Captain, is a great choice! Very likeable guy and he’s a starter for sure. The poor man’s Mike Phillips has done well. 👌😜

— Mike Phillips (@mikephillips009) June 27, 2021

As with all good jokes, there was a trace of truth. The size and strength of Phillips was a key component of the defensive system that underpinned the success of Gatland and Shaun Edwards with Wales.

Listed at 94kg on the official Lions website, Murray has a weight advantage over Davies (90kg) and Price (88kg). Standing 1.87m (6ft 1in) tall, he is taller than both positional rivals as well.   

Like Phillips, Murray has spent his career making plenty of tackles in the front line of defence. Against Japan, despite being side-stepped by the excellent Kotaro Matsushima from a first-half scrum, he completed 10 of them over an hour on the pitch.

With a tough-tackling scrum-half capable of playing this role, a team can keep width in their defensive line. With that width, they can more safely press up to shut down space.

At the weekend, the Lions flitted between 14-1 and 13-2 defensive formations. Here, on the edge of their own 22, they have 14 men in the front line. Murray is one of those, with wings Josh Adams and Duhan van der Merwe also up flat leaving Liam Williams patrolling the back-field:

Later on, with the Lions further up the field, Van der Merwe has dropped to join Williams. Murray is up flat again, meaning the Lions are in a 13-2 formation.

Japan scrum-half Kaito Shigeno feeds fly-half Yu Tamura behind a three-man pod of forwards…

…but Murray shuts down the space alongside Courtney Lawes. The pair help the Lions to win the gain-line comprehensively:

Conor Murray vs Japan 1

On the following phase, Japan spread the ball wide. Van der Merwe presses up, so inside centre Ryoto Nakamura aims a grubber in behind…

…but Williams covers to gather:

The Lions will need to maintain width in their defensive line against the Springboks for two reasons. Firstly, to impart line-speed. Secondly, more players on their feet at the start of any given phase will give them more scope to compete at the breakdown and slow down South Africa’s ruck-speed.

One would expect them to counter the Springboks’ kicking by staying in a 13-2 rather than a 14-1. Either way, Murray will be up flat and racking up tackles.

Intriguing maul attack and composure in phase-play

It was an obvious ploy of the Lions to probe Japan’s blindside. Here, from a third-minute lineout, Murray begins 10-metres back as his forwards initiate a driving maul.

Shrewdly, he checks with referee Pascal Gaüzère that he is able to move up from his initial position. His interaction with referees would have been another big plus:

Immediately after arriving on the scene, he beckons players towards the far touchline, with only Shigeno and tighthead prop Jiwon Koo covering that side for Japan:

Jack Conan’s arrival holds Shigeno, so Murray fizzes a pass across his back-rower to Van der Merwe. Notice that the scrum-half follows up to hit a ruck:

Conor Murray vs Japan 2

Murray is not shy of mucking in at breakdowns when required. Watch the build-up to Adams’ try. He joins the ruck following Aki’s incisive carry, then supports Adams following the wing’s pick-and-go, helping Tadhg Furlong to lift Japan jackaller Pieter Labuschagne off the ball:

Murray and Adams began at the front of a lineout that led to Robbie Henshaw’s close-range finish: 

Watch how they back away towards the near touchline as the maul develops:

Once, Murray even bolted blind on his own as Owens fed Dan Biggar:

Clearly, the Lions are working on ways to manipulate maul defences and drag opposition players away from drives. South Africa are notoriously effective in this area, surrendering a grand total of 22 metres from the 20 drives that opponents attempted at Rugby World Cup 2019.

In phase-play, one or two wayward passes and a solo snipe that led to a Japan turnover, Murray kept his composure as we saw hints of how the Lions will operate.

The second-half attack that ended in Tadhg Beirne’s try…

…featured wings roaming off their flank, Conan loitering wide and interplay between three- and two-man pods of forwards as the Lions zig-zagged up field.

Murray’s distribution and organisation facilitated all of that, and his composure should aid the tourists as they develop their attacking template in the weeks to come.

Box-kicking accuracy

There can be no escaping this fact: The Test series will be punctuated by a great deal of box-kicking.

Against a defence as aggressive as that of South Africa, the ploy can prove to be the most effective means of creating broken-field situations. In New Zealand’s pool-stage win over the Sprinboks, their two tries came from recovered kicks:

Murray hoisted a contestable kick in the first two minutes, and his organisation before the strike was diligent and deliberate.

He starts by beckoning Conan towards this collapsed maul…

…before tapping Owens once the hooker has support in place:

Finally, Murray appears to tell Justin Tipuric and Alun Wyn Jones that they will be required at the upcoming ruck:

With that measured build-up, Murray can roll the ball to the back of the breakdown and strike a box-kick that allows Adams to chase. The right wing rises and bats the ball back towards his Lions teammates:

Conor Murray vs Japan 3

None of that is particularly sexy, but staid box-kick routines often lead to promising attacks. Conversely, rushed ones can invite pressure.

Here, Murray picks the ball out of the breakdown before it has been rolled to the right foot of Lawes. Sakate is lurking…

…and the extra step that Murray takes gives Japan’s hooker time to make the charge-down:

Conor Murray vs Japan 4

Ali Price and Gareth Davies can certainly become valuable members of the tour party. Each of them offers something different to challenge opponents.

Price scurries around breakdowns and possesses an inventive kicking game. Davies is a disruptive defender who runs excellent support lines.

That said, Murray must be in line to start all three Tests at this stage. With so much uncertainty swirling, that makes him a logical choice as captain.

Match images courtesy of Channel 4