It is the snakes-and-ladders element of every British & Irish Lions tour that is so endlessly fascinating. For Conor Murray the highs and lows have been unusually stark, from being named tour captain to Covid isolation to not starting the first Test. Now he is back in the box seat, seeking to outwit the two former Munster coaches in charge of South Africa.
Murray, as level-headed as they come, admits the past few weeks have been a “rollercoaster”, which he hopes will culminate in the Lions taking an unbeatable 2-0 series advantage on Saturday. His time spent alongside the Springbok duo of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber in 2016-17, though, taught him to take nothing for granted.
According to the 32-year-old Ireland scrum-half, the pair have a “good cop, bad cop” relationship and will have been poring over their computers again this week searching for new Lions weaknesses to exploit. “We have to be prepared for a few surprises,” says Murray, picked to start ahead of Ali Price for the pivotal second Test. “Rassie and Jacques like to think about the game very deeply so they’re going to be looking at everything we are doing. Rassie can surprise you at times so we’ve got to be ready for anything.”
In Murray’s experience at Munster, Erasmus is the more demanding taskmaster and will be expecting an ultra-physical response to South Africa’s defeat in the first Test. “He was a tough player, he expected toughness from his players. If the physicality side of things ever lacked or somebody shied away from it they would be told.
“There was definitely a time and a place for that toughness at Munster and then Jacques was the good cop. They kind of worked in tandem. If Rassie would have a go at anyone in the Munster changing room, Jacques would have a quiet word with them and tell them what Rassie actually meant and that it’s coming from a good place.”
The Lions, consequently, fully anticipate a “Bok-lash” from their hosts. Along with almost everyone in the Lions camp, Murray has been faintly baffled by Erasmus’s social media antics this week but believes it is just a sideshow to the main event. “Like any coach after a defeat like that, he’s going to try to pick his squad up and emotionally fire them up. Will he be trying to rev them up for that battle again and more? Probably. Rassie can say a lot of things, but he’ll certainly have a definite plan of how they want to come out and attack the game.
“I don’t know what his gameplan is with Twitter or what the craic is, really. It’s just a funny, weird thing that’s going on as a subplot. I don’t think it will take pressure off anyone’s shoulders. We’re fully aware of what will come out of the tunnel on Saturday and we’ve got to meet it.”
The respective tactical contributions of Murray and his opposite number, Faf de Klerk, will also be hugely relevant, with the blond Sale No 9 central to the success of South Africa’s territory-based game. The Irishman’s box-kicking ability is also among his strongest suits and explains why, initially at least, he has been preferred to the more nimble Price.
Win those contestable aerial duels and subdue the buzzing De Klerk and, in the Lions’ view, they will be halfway there. “Faf 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 that, too. He is not afraid to get stuck in. You always want to win your individual battles and there are loads of them across the pitch. It’s going to be a proper Test match. Yes, South Africa will come again and be a bit more fired up, but we’re also excited about what we can do on Saturday.”
If anyone should know exactly what to expect at the business end of a Lions series it is Murray. In Australia in 2013, he came off the bench to help clinch the series victory against the Wallabies in Sydney; four years ago in New Zealand his crucial try in the second Test went a long way towards helping the Lions to secure a 1-1 series outcome.
This time around, Murray will always cherish the day that Warren Gatland invited him to take over – temporarily as it proved – as tour captain from the then-injured Alun Wyn Jones. “After the Japan game at Murrayfield we were waiting around for the cap ceremony. I was kneeling down on the couch and Gats kicked my shoe.
“I looked up and the last thing I expected him to say was: ‘Do you want to captain the tour for the remainder?’ It was an unbelievable feeling. I suppose as the messages rolled in you got a sense of how big a thing it was. Captaining the side, being on the bench, starting … this tour has had pretty much everything for me.”
For Murray and the Lions, the next few days could yet be the most emotional of all.