Warren Gatland explains his reasons for promoting Conor Murray to starting Lions spot

Murray is one of three changes to the Lions starting line-up, replacing Ali Price who moves to the bench
Warren Gatland explains his reasons for promoting Conor Murray to starting Lions spot

Alun Wyn Jones with Conor Murray at Lions training. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland

Warren Gatland wants Conor Murray to help manage the British & Irish Lions weather the storm he is expecting from the Springboks in Saturday’s 2nd Test.

The Lions head coach has promoted the Munster and Ireland scrum-half from the bench to the starting line-up at Cape Town Stadium as the tourists bid to take an unassailable 2-0 lead in the three-Test series following their 22-17 win last Saturday.

Murray, 32, is one of three changes to the Lions starting line-up, replacing Ali Price who moves to the bench, with Chris Harris coming into the matchday squad to replace Elliot Daly at outside centre and Mako Vunipola stepping up from the bench to start at loosehead prop instead of Rory Sutherland.

Like Vunipola, the Limerick man is being rewarded for an impactful replacement role as the Lions overhauled a 12-3 South African half-time lead and now Gatland wants to tap into that game-management prowess from his scrum-half to see his side through the hosts’ inevitable backlash to that defeat as the world champions fight to keep the series alive.

“He was good when he came on,” Gatland said of Murray on Tuesday, “and it’s going to be tight in that first 20 or 30 minutes.

“The way South Africa tend to play, if we look at the two games, the A game and this (first Test), they try and build the scoreboard, they try and get in front and look to hold on.

“That first 20 or 30 minutes is pretty important for us. And then we have been happy with the way we have finished in the second half of both those games, and felt strong.

“And potentially the game might open up, in the tempo of the game, which is something we think Ali can bring, maybe in that second half, and the same with the other players that are on the bench.” 

Gatland explained his thinking by making those three changes to a winning team and mixing up what had been an influential bench in the second-half fightback last Saturday, also suggesting that making no change at all was discussed at Monday’s final selection meeting with his assistant coaches.

“Just about picking what we thought was the best team for this match. Again, some tight, tough calls and lots of different choices that we could have gone with. We could have easily gone with the same 23 who won the first Test match, but we’ve made a couple of changes, because we just felt that we’re picking a team for the second Test match and what we’re expecting to come from South Africa.

“The discussion was that if we’re going to make changes, you kind of don’t make one, you might make two or three changes, and we did discuss, do we reward that 23 for winning the first Test? We looked at a couple of individuals, we looked at ball-in-play time, we thought our bench was outstanding in terms of that impact. That was definitely a consideration with making a couple of changes, but also being aware of it’s not just the 15, it’s a 23.” 

Wyn Jones failed to recover from the shoulder injury that forced his withdrawal from the first Test team, prompting Vunipola’s move onto the bench and Sutherland's promotion to a starter last week. Now Vunipola gets his chance to renew his starting role at loosehead from 2017 against New Zealand while the Lions have named Dan Biggar once again at fly-half, subject to the Welshman successfully coming through his return to play protocols following a head knock in the second half last Saturday.

Gatland is confident Biggar will complete the process and said: “He is looking good at the moment, we’re going through that process and we’ve got an independent consultant who’s looking at that as well. So he’s passed everything at the moment and hopefully he’s ready to go (to resume training) on Thursday.”

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