Conor Murray has regained the red number nine shirt he wore with distinction against the All Blacks in 2017 as Warren Gatland switches emphasis for what he needs from his scrumhalves. The Lions head coach picked Ali Price to start last week in order to unsettle the South African defence close to the contact area with his sniping darts and quick acceleration with the Munster and Ireland star on the bench to come on and see the game through, which he did, closing out a 22-17 victory.
Kicking was hugely important, with the Lions winning the second-half aerial battle as the Boks went to the air repeatedly without their customary success at regathering the ball.
Murray’s box kicking was central to that victory and it will be key once more Saturday evening but with a 1-0 lead and a series victory within reach, Gatland needs Murray’s experience as much as his boot, and the threetime Lion’s excellent game management skills to help ensure the tourists get the strong start to the second Test they lacked in the opener, particularly with a widely expected backlash from the Springboks all but guaranteed.
“Kicking has always been a strength,” Murray said this week. “It’ll be a big point in the game on Saturday but that is not the only reason I am playing scrumhalf.
“There is a lot of stuff that Gregor (Townsend, the attack coach) and Ali and Gareth (Davies, the other nine in the squad) and I have been chatting about.
Those other areas of the game are areas I’d like to have as much impact on as the kicking.
“I am really looking forward to playing a Test match on Saturday and playing the best that I can play. Kicking is definitely a part of it, but there’s an awful lot more to it. It’s going to be a proper Test match. Yes, South Africa will come again, a bit more fired up, but we are excited about what we can do on Saturday.”
Toulouse and France’s Antoine Dupont may have stolen both their claims to the best number nine in the world but that should not detract from what looks like a fascinating head-to-head contest in Cape Town.
Both Murray and de Klerk have been through a lot since the Sale Shark made his Springbok Test debut against his opposite number at Newlands in Cape Town five years ago, when Ireland sealed a first win on South African soil in June 2016. The intervening period has undoubtedly been kinder to de Klerk, who helped his country win the World Cup in 2019 and Murray, three years his senior at 32, 16cm or eight inches taller at 1.88m (6ft 2in) and 13kg (2st) heavier at 93kg (14st 7lbs) is well aware of the Springbok nine’s talent.
“He’s a threat definitely, especially with his left foot. I think that’s a massive play for him. He looks to use that quite a lot. He got a bit of success out of it last week. At times we dealt with it quite well; we covered the backfield on him. He is central to anything they are trying to do. The way he runs the game; the energy he tries to create. It is going to be confrontational and he leads it too. He is not afraid to get stuck in.”
For Munster supporters who saw Erasmus steer the province through its most traumatic period following the sudden death of head coach Anthony Foley in October 2016, it must be like seeing a different person on their TV screens and social media channels right now.
Having guided his beloved Springboks to World Cup glory in 2019, Erasmus, 48, does not appear to have transitioned well to a higher management position as director of rugby at SA Rugby. And in trying to go toe-to-toe with Lions head coach Warren Gatland on the mind games front these past three weeks he looks to have come off second best, though Springbok fans may beg to differ.
Whereas Gatland has mastered the dark arts of delivering verbals, through subtle suggestions rather than the grenades of the past and dry humour instead of direct accusation to get under Erasmus’s skin, the South African has preferred the sledgehammer approach.
The latest example was a one-hour video of Erasmus speaking directly to camera which was posted on Thursday and took direct aim at the Test series match officials for not treating the Springboks fairly in last Saturday’s first Test.
He had some points which deserve sympathy but the nature of using such a platform to air such issues is the most significant concern and how that will play out with the same officials, rotating the refereeing role between the trio, one can only guess, never mind Marius Jonker, the unfortunate TMO placed in a now impossible position by World Rugby’s decision to install a South African to the role when their original, neutral choice was unable to travel.
Jonker is now public enemy one in the eyes of his rugby-mad countrymen and whichever way his decisions fall on Saturday, someone will be unhappy.
Or do they just try to do what they have been doing so well for so long, only better than they did it last week? What has become crystal clear to Gatland, who narrowly lost a World Cup semi-final to South Africa 20 months ago with Wales, is that there is no Plan B where the Springboks are concerned. If there had been, they would have stopped sending the diminutive yet immensely gifted Cheslin Kolbe up to contest a succession of high balls and instead put the ball in his hands and let his magical footwork do the rest.
The Boks have two world-beating wings in Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi, who caused the Lions defence all kinds of problems on the rare occasion he received the ball yet the gameplan saw it go no further than inside centre Damian de Allende for long periods of the match. The Lions will prepare for any eventuality but don’t be surprised if it’s the same Plan A, just more Conor Murray Faf de Klerk Warren Gatland passionately implemented.