Conor Murray (left) knows South Africa’s coaching team all too well

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No-one within the Lions camp knows the methods of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber better than scrum-half Conor Murray, who played under the Springboks coaches for two years when they were in charge at Munster. 

Together they would play a good cop, bad cop routine with Erasmus very much in the mould of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. Murray remembers Erasmus tearing a player to strips before Nienaber came in to scrape the pieces back together.

“Tough” is the word that Murray repeatedly uses in reference to Erasmus, South Africa’s director of rugby. “He was a tough player, he expected toughness from his players,” Murray said. 

“If ever we lacked [physicality] or somebody shied away from it they would be told. So again, we’re fully aware of what will come out of the tunnel on Saturday and we’ve got to meet it.” 

However, ‘Jaco Johan’ and social media storms are clearly a new page in the Erasmus playbook according to Murray. “I don’t know what his gameplan is with Twitter,” Murray said. “I don’t know what the craic is really. It’s quite a funny thing, to be honest.” 

What Murray does know for certain is that Erasmus will have the Springboks primed and pumped for Saturday after their 22-17 defeat in the first Test. “Like any coach, after a defeat like that, he’s going to try to pick his squad up and emotionally fire them up,” Murray said. 

“Rassie can say a lot of things, but he’ll certainly have a really definite plan of how they want to come out and attack the game. Rassie can surprise you at times too so we’ve got to be ready for anything. 

“So will they be hurting from that? Will he be trying to rev them up for that battle again and more? Probably. It’s going to be a really close Test match again. We have to be prepared for a few surprises because Rassie and Jacques like to think about the game very deeply so they’re going to be looking at everything we are doing.” 

Before the first Test, Murray managed to catch up with Nienaber and they had a pleasant chat by the halfway line. Nienaber was always the one to text congratulations; Erasmus had less time for small talk, although they did exchange words when he was water boy in the South Africa A match. 

“Nothing nasty, just pleasantries,” Murray adds. Certainly Erasmus has a nasty streak, but Murray would not divulge the details of his infamous sprays. “There’s memorable ones in my head, but they were inside Munster’s four walls.” 

Murray was a replacement in the first Test but will start at No 9 in the second

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The dynamic between Erasmus and Nienaber has been questioned by Sir Clive Woodward among others since the former swapped roles from head coach to director of rugby. While the power structure has shifted with Nienaber now nominally the man in charge as head coach, Murray confirms that as a double act they were incredibly effective at Munster. 

“Rassie was tough and there was definitely a time and a place for that toughness at Munster and then Jacques was the good cop,” Murray said. “They kind of worked in tandem like that and that’s why they are such a good team, they balance well off each other. 

“If Rassie would have a go at anyone in the Munster changing room, Jacques would probably have a quiet word with them and tell them what Rassie actually meant and that it’s coming from a good place. 

“I don’t know how it works with South Africa at the moment but they’ve known each other for years and years and years. They think about the game of rugby quite deeply so they’ll be putting their heads together and coming up with a plan for this weekend.” 

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Murray, too, will have his plotting hat on, having come into the team to replace Ali Price at scrum-half. It marks the latest twist in what Murray describes as a “rollercoaster” year in which he was dropped by Ireland for Jamison Gibson-Park, made captain of the Lions and passed over for Price in the first Test. 

The 32-year-old recalls his shock at Gatland’s invitation to assume the captaincy after Alun Wyn Jones dislocated his shoulder in the victory against Japan at Murrayfield. 

“We were waiting around for the cap ceremony and I was kneeling down chatting to someone on the couch and Gats kicked my shoe,” Murray said. 

“I looked up and the last thing I expected him to say was: ‘Do you want to captain the tour for the remainder?’ Yeah, that was an unbelievable feeling. 

“To eventually run out as captain of a Lions side was really, really special. There’s been everything in this tour for me: captaining the side, being on the bench, starting. It has had pretty much everything.”