The Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray has been named as Warren Gatland’s surprise choice as the new British & Irish Lions captain after Alun Wyn Jones was ruled out with a dislocated shoulder on a disastrous day for the tourists. Justin Tipuric has also been withdrawn with a shoulder injury with the Lions plunged into disarray before flying to South Africa on Sunday.
Murray’s appointment as the new tour captain comes from left field, with Gatland overlooking Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell and Ken Owens as potential replacements for Jones, but the 32-year-old Irishman can be considered a safe pair of hands, having started all three Tests in New Zealand four years ago. In a position in which Gatland does not have great depth, Murray is also one of few players who seem assured of their Test spot at this early stage, though it must be said he was not among the Lions’ best performers in the comfortable four-try victory over Japan on Saturday. His captaincy experience is also limited.
In Jones’s place, Gatland has also sprung a surprise by calling up Wales’s Adam Beard – a penny for the thoughts of James Ryan and Jonny Gray – while replacing Tipuric is Josh Navidi, a more straightforward choice given he was among the more unlucky players to miss out on the initial squad.
Ultimately, all three decisions from Gatland have an air of familiarity, even convenience about them. Much like when Gatland turned to Steve Tandy and Robin McBryde when Andy Farrell, Steve Borthwick and Graham Rowntree all became unavailable as assistant coaches, the New Zealander has turned to what he knows.
“We’re all incredibly disappointed for Alun Wyn and Justin,” said Gatland. “The timing of these injuries seem particularly cruel, but unfortunately they’re part of the game. Alun Wyn will obviously be a big loss, both on and off the field, but will be ably replaced by Conor.
“Conor is an outstanding rugby player and is held in the highest regard with both the players and coaches. As a three-time Lions tourist, he knows what will be required as captain and I am certain he will lead the squad with excellence.”
With no disrespect to Tipuric, another veteran of two previous tours, it is the loss of Jones that comes as a hammer blow to Gatland. He sustained the injury after just seven minutes and the look on his face as he left the field did not bode well. He was the only member of the squad who toured South Africa in 2009, has nine Tests caps for the Lions and seven starts, including each of the last six. Put simply, he is irreplaceable. “[It’s] very disappointing,” said Gatland. “He’s been around rugby long enough but he’s going to be gutted. It’s very disappointing for him but you’ve got to put that behind you and move on as quickly as you can.”
Gatland was doing his best to put on a brave face and it must be said that dealing with injuries is an inevitable part of any Lions tour, as demonstrated with Hamish Watson and Zander Fagerson having to pull out of the starting lineup here. There is no doubting, however, that the injury bulletin has ruined the Lions’ win against an obviously rusty Japan.
The fact that a stadium announcement, just before half-time, informing supporters that the bars were closing generated the noisiest response of the match from the crowd said everything about the significance of this fixture but it must be said that injuries notwithstanding, the Lions were quietly effective, certainly the first half. Jack Conan made his considerable presence felt at the breakdown and Dan Biggar made the kind of assured start at fly-half which went some way to explaining why he is the favourite for the No 10 jersey in the Test series.
The wingers, too, staked an early claim with Josh Adams and Duhan van der Merwe scoring the opening two tries. Adams’s came from a strong carry up the middle from Bundee Aki with Murray fizzing a pass to the Wales wing on the right. Van der Merwe, meanwhile, darted down the short side of a ruck on the right to catch Japan unawares.
Robbie Henshaw was next to bludgeon over and credit the Lions for sticking to the task, albeit against a Japan side performing considerably below the level they reached at the World Cup. The Lions have already had to deal with a few setbacks and their ability to cope with more will be crucial to their chances of success in South Africa.
After the interval, Courtney Lawes had a try disallowed before Tadhg Beirne stormed under the posts after another delightful pass from Biggar for the Lions’ fourth try.
Looking for clues as to Gatland’s thinking, it is perhaps telling that when Owen Farrell came on with 25 minutes to go he replaced Aki at inside-centre, rather than Biggar at fly-half before the replacement Kazuki Himeno got Japan – improved after the break – on the board with a close-range try. Yu Tamura added a penalty for Japan while the Lions played the final 15 minutes with 14 men after Conan was removed with the bench already emptied.