He may have missed out on a Test start but Warren Gatland has told Conor Murray he will still have a crucial role to play for the British & Irish Lions against South Africa this Saturday.
Murray’s hopes of a fourth consecutive Lions Test start following his pivotal role in the 2017 series draw with New Zealand were dashed on Wednesday when Gatland announced his team for the first Test at Cape Town Stadium and the head coach named Scotland’s Ali Price as the starting scrum-half.
Price, three years Murray’s junior at 28 and with 47 fewer Test caps than the Limerick man’s 89 for Ireland, impressed the Lions management with a lively performance last Saturday in the 49-3 win over the Stormers. His speed of pass and running game, albeit against less stern opposition than Murray had faced four days earlier when he played in the defeat against South Africa A, eclipsed the Munster and Ireland star at just the right time to force the issue with the selectors.
Murray’s omission was one of a number of surprises sprung by the head coach, who will occupy a Test bench with fellow 2017 Test starters Owen Farrell and Liam Williams, who lost out on the fly-half and full-back berths respectively.
Gatland emphasised the difficulty he had faced in selecting his starting line-up, which includes Irish trio Tadhg Furlong at tighthead prop, Jack Conan at No 8 and Robbie Henshaw at inside centre. Describing the process as the hardest of his four years of coaching on Lions tours, he also spoke of the closeness of many of the calls for this, his third successive series as Lions head coach.
“We’ve had strong sides before,” Gatland said. “But the most depth and options we’ve ever had from any selection before. There’s definitely been quality teams that have been put out on previous tours and different types of players. But we had so many options and so many players putting their hands up. That’s been fantastic.
“One of the things we wanted to make sure we did on this tour was pick quality men as well. It’s about creating one team, not where you came from or anything like that. You come to the selection meeting and you don’t look at the nations they come from. You look at them as individuals coming from one team and hopefully making the right decisions.
“It’s tough from that perspective but a real positive because you want to be in that position where there’s going to be a large group of players really disappointed because they’ve made your job so hard. That’s always the toughest part of a Test week — the selection and the disappointment that’s going to come afterwards.
“That’s the part of the week I dislike the most. It’s always the hardest to deliver those messages of disappointment. Sometimes you’re able to say to players one or two things that another player might have had over them that swung selection. Other times you don’t have an answer, you just say keep working hard and we’ve gone with a gut feeling because we feel it’s the right call for that game.
“There were definitely some of those decisions made where it was almost like gut feelings or tosses of the coin where it could
easily have gone the other way.”
Scrum-half was one such decision and Gatland, while praising Price, offered some consolation to Murray, the man he had selected for the tour captaincy in the wake of Alun Wyn Jones’s dislocated shoulder on June 26 but who now finds himself neither captain nor number nine with the veteran Wales lock recovered and set to lead the Lions in his 10th consecutive Lions Test, a record for a player in the professional era.
“We’ve been really impressed with (Price). His running game against the Stormers was good,” Gatland said. “Nice variation, he was getting the ball away quickly.
“In saying that, it’s not just about the starting 15 and looking at South Africa and particularly up front and the bench, we wanted to make sure the balance was right and how important our bench is going to be with experienced players coming off the bench.
“You’ve got players like Conor Murray, Liam Williams and Owen Farrell who are disappointed not to be involved but having that experience, they will have a chance to come on and hopefully close the game out for us.
“So we’re really happy with the depth of our bench and how important they’re going to be for us on Saturday… I need to reiterate that it’s not just the starting XV but the guys coming off the bench are going to have a significant impact and they need to have an impact coming off the bench for us.”