Warren Gatland has put Conor Murray on notice that he will need to play before the end of the season if he wants to take his seat on the British & Irish Lions plane leaving for New Zealand in less than five weeks.
The Munster and Ireland scrum-half was one of 11 Irishmen and three from his province named in Gatland’s 41-man squad announced in London yesterday. Yet his ongoing struggle to overcome a stinger injury in his left shoulder/neck sustained almost six weeks ago is a concern for the Lions head coach.
If fully fit, Murray, who turns 28 today, would be favourite to be the starting number nine for the three-Test series against the All Blacks.
Yet Gatland suggested he may not be taken without game time for Munster.
“It is a concern. He’s got a nerve issue,” Gatland said of Murray. “I spoke to the doctor yesterday. He (Murray) was hoping to be fit this week. He had a setback a couple of weeks ago. He’s going to need to play before he gets on the plane.
“That’s going to be important for us. I would be reluctant to take someone to New Zealand with a neck injury who hasn’t played particularly. His last game was against Wales, on March 10.
“He’s incredibly fit as a player. It’s causing him a bit of discomfort and a bit of weakness in his arm, and hopefully he’s going to be right in a couple of weeks, and the neurologist is confident he’s going to be okay.
“He’s had some disc problems in the past but that’s not what’s causing the issue. It’s some nerve problem that he’s got at the moment.
“Look, it’s a concern, because he is a quality player. I think he’s disappointed himself. He was hoping to be right this week for Munster. So hopefully he’s going to be right in a couple of weeks and get one or two games under his belt.”
Murray was an integral part of the Ireland team which beat New Zealand in Chicago last November, delivering a first victory over the All Blacks for the national side in 111 years and Gatland believes that performance can be a template for success this summer, as well as bringing significant and essential belief to his squad that the Lions can win the series.
“That’s kind of the challenge, isn’t it? As coaches, you’re trying to deliver that message sometimes when you’re playing the All Blacks about confidence and self-belief. You’re not too sure when you get that glazed look from the players if they honestly believe that.
“So, Ireland doing that in Chicago was pretty special. Especially considering at 27-8 or whatever it was at half-time, you think they’re going to comfortably do it and to see the All Blacks come back and almost look like they were going to steal it and then for the Irish to, in that last 10 minutes, put them under pressure.
“And to see some of those world class (New Zealand) players be human, make some mistakes, show some frailties... that gives you that self-belief and confidence.
“Always as a coach you’re trying to deliver that message, to put players and teams under pressure and they are human and they will make mistakes.
“Andy Farrell being a coach with England and Ireland, the Ireland players having won and some of the England players having won in 2012... you’ve got to go there believing.”
It will take more than belief, though, and Gatland said understanding New Zealand and Maori culture was a necessary ingredient for a successful tour, noting that England had failed to grasp that at the 2011 World Cup there. The Kiwi-born Lions boss even suggested some research material for his players and coaches.
“The other thing people don’t understand is that there are teams who go to New Zealand and they don’t go there culturally prepared. What I mean by that is, particularly in 2011, teams rocked up there not prepared culturally for what’s going to happen.
“The first Sunday (of this tour), we’ve got a welcome in Waitangi, the Marae (Maori meeting grounds) and to culturally go through the process around that... We’ll get welcomed on there, we’ll accept some Maori challenges and get on to the Marae. They speak, they sing. So every speaker is followed by song, so we’ll reply as well.
“My hope at the moment is that we have (tour manager) John Spencer to speak, we’ll have to sing.
“Someone will speak in Irish and will sing, someone will speak in Welsh and will sing... so culturally, we’ll get some respect by doing that. I don’t think the two Scots will be able to speak Gaelic, but maybe they might be able to do that.
“Teams, they haven’t understood it. And I’ve said it to the staff as well; go and watch ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ with Sam Neill in it, or there’s a film called the ‘Whale Rider’ or another called ‘Boy’. It kind of gives you an understanding of New Zealand humour, New Zealand culture a little bit.
“If you do that, if we go there prepared and we understand our opposition, understand our enemy a bit better then that little bit of a percentage of what it’s going to be like to travel in New Zealand - hopefully we’re going to arrive there with a better understanding of the country, of the culture of the people that we’re going to.
“I think a lot of people in the past who have been there haven’t been prepared well enough for that.
It’s a tough place, a really tough place to go to and tour. The intensity, the knowledge of the nation... it’s not going to be like Australia in 2013 when we arrived in Melbourne and all of the people were saying: ‘Who are the people wearing red jerseys?’ They had no ideas the Lions were in town.
“Wherever we go in New Zealand, we’re going to be inundated by fans who are incredibly excited about us being there and also very knowledgeable about the Lions, the players and the performances and the expectation as well.”
Dan Biggar (Wales), Elliot Daly (England), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Jonathan Joseph (England), Conor Murray (Ireland), George North (Wales), Jack Nowell (England), Jared Payne (Ireland), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Ben T’eo (England), Anthony Watson (England), Rhys Webb (Wales), Liam Williams (Wales), Ben Youngs (England), Rory Best (Ireland), Dan Cole (England), Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Jamie George (England), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Maro Itoje (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), George Kruis (England), Courtney Lawes (England), Joe Marler (England), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Ross Moriarty (Wales), Sean O’Brien (Ireland), Peter O’Mahony (Ireland), Ken Owens (Wales), Kyle Sinckler (England), CJ Stander (Ireland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Mako Vunipola (England), Billy Vunipola (England), Sam Warburton (Wales, capt).
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved