Conor Murray has won a series in Australia with the British and Irish Lions and drawn another, in New Zealand, but Munster’s scrum-half says that making a third tour, this time to South Africa, is the most satisfying of the lot after his struggles with injury and form.
The Limerick man was one of the best players on the planet in 2018 as Ireland conquered all before them but a neck injury suffered midway through the year kept him out for months and he struggled to revisit those previous heights on his return.
He starts for the Lions this Saturday, partnering Wales’ Dan Biggar as Warren Gatland’s get their latest odyssey underway with a game against Japan at Murrayfield. And Murray admits that there were times when he doubted if that scenario would unfold.
“Yeah, jeez. As a professional rugby player you go through those thoughts weekly depending on how you play, well or not so well, or whether you are injured. It is a battle week-to-week as a professional athlete but you have got to keep your main goal in sight and stay positive and stay true to yourself.
“Whatever about the two previous tours, this is the most satisfying for me by a long, long way. With the challenges with injury and playing-wise and things like that, it is something I am really proud to have come through and made it to this stage.”
That said, just making the plane is not enough. It never can be for a man who played such a pivotal role on the 2013 and 2017 adventures, and he is a good bet to be the starting scrum-half again come the first of the three Tests against South Africa.
“I was here four years ago and I want to experience something similar so that has boosted the motivation even more again. You work so hard to get the call to get on this tour but once you get here what makes this special is how you perform on the pitch.
“Obviously the relationships and the experiences we have off the pitch are going to be important but ultimately it’s about what you do on the pitch."
That the tour is going ahead is something of a small miracle in itself given the grip which Covid-19 and a particular virulent strain of it has on South Africa where there are fears of an imminent third wave.
That the Lions are going to be touring and playing there in the midst of what is to come has been criticised, both in South Africa itself and elsewhere, and Murray was asked if this backdrop is weighing on minds as they prepare to make for the southern hemisphere.
“We’ve all lived it for the last year and a bit now and it is something we have learned to live with. We have remained in our bubble but it has been cool to see normal life going on outside the hotel in Jersey and we had an open training session, obviously very safely.
“We are aware that South Africa is going to be completely different. You would love to be going down to an open South Africa where you can have fans. The memories of watching the 2009 tour are incredible, just the travelling support, and my experience of that in the last two tours makes it so, so special.
“To the core of it, to get the opportunity to play in a Test series with the Lions is something special. That will remain at the front of our minds. Yeah, it is going to be a challenge with Covid, we will be together and really tight for the six weeks we are down there but we are very, very lucky we get to do this. You have to get through it as best you can.”