It takes a lot to knock Conor Murray off his stride but even he admits this summer’s British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa has been a “rollercoaster”.
The Munster and Ireland scrum-half, a veteran of the 2013 and 2017 Lions tours to Australia and New Zealand respectively, was widely regarded to be nailed on as the Test number nine for the series against the Springboks, a perception underscored by Warren Gatland’s decision to name him tour captain when Alun Wyn Jones was ruled out of the tour after dislocating his shoulder in the pre-tour game against Japan at Murrayfield on June 26.
Yet on a tour at first overshadowed by Covid-19 and a spell in self-isolation that caused him to miss the first game against the Sharks in Johannesburg, Murray then found his Test prospects under threat from an in-form Ali Price and then he saw Jones make a Lazarus-like return from injury to resume his captaincy.
Murray, 32, then did lose out to Price in Gatland’s first-Test selection but after making an impact off the bench in the 22-17 win over the world champions, he was named to start this Saturday’s second Test, his fourth at nine for the Lions and seventh Test appearance in three tours.
None have been like this one though.
“It’s been a rollercoaster, it really has,” Murray said following Tuesday’s team announcement.
“Just with the Covid and stuff...my journey on this tour has been interesting. It’s been brilliant and I’ve enjoyed it immensely.
“I was speaking to someone last week about not being selected. It’s really interesting; it’s bigger than you, it’s bigger than any individual player getting upset about it. Yes, you have 24 or 48 hours to be frustrated and you talk to the people you need to talk to but quite quickly you realise how big the Lions is and how big your role still is.
“I was off the bench last week. After a little bit of time you get your head straight, get into the game and try and contribute to what we want, which is a series win. Everyone wants to start or be in the 23 but that’s just not possible.
“This week is brilliant, last week was a little bit more difficult but after the game on Saturday, I was as happy as if I’d started. Coming on and doing okay was satisfying but just to beat the Springboks in their backyard was the squad’s goal.
“There’s disappointment every week and other players who are over the moon. It’s a strange environment to be in but I think the lads have handled it pretty well.”
Murray said he saw his appointment as tour captain in Jones’s absence as “a huge vote of confidence from Gats and the coaching team” and described the moment after the Japan game he was told of the decision.
“It was a crazy day with the game first of all and playing in front of a crowd. That Japan game will stick out in a lot of people’s minds.
“Back to the hotel, we were waiting around for the cap ceremony and I was kneeling down chatting to someone on the couch and Gats kicked my shoe.
“I looked up and that was the last thing I expected him to say, ‘do you want to captain the tour for the remainder’. Yeah, that was an unbelievable feeling. I suppose as the messages rolled in you got a sense of how big a thing it was, how big an achievement it was. It was really special to be named as a tour captain.
“It took a while to run out as a tour captain because I was a close contact in Johannesburg. To eventually run out as captain of a Lions side (against South Africa A) 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.”