Conor Murray has been backed to do “an amazing job” in his new role as the British & Irish Lions captain as the touring side seek to overcome the untimely loss of their injured totem Alun Wyn Jones.
The England hooker Jamie George says the entire squad believe Warren Gatland has made a shrewd decision as the Lions prepare for their first provincial game on South African soil in Johannesburg this Saturday.
As a fellow tourist in New Zealand four years ago, George is already aware of Murray’s qualities and says the squad’s widespread respect for the scrum-half made him the ideal candidate to take over from Jones, who dislocated a shoulder against Japan at Murrayfield last Saturday.
“He’ll have the full backing of the team because of the amount of respect he’s accumulated over the years,” said George, who started all three Tests in New Zealand four years ago. “Character-wise I can’t speak highly enough of him. He’s an unbelievably popular member of the group, someone who always has an arm around you, checking in on you. I think that’s a great sign of a good leader.
“I’d imagine he won’t be as vocal as previous captains I’ve worked with but he comes up with moments of gold, not just from a technical but a mindset point of view. He’s the sort of person that when he talks people listen. That’s a great trait of a captain. I think he deserves it. He’s on his third tour, he’s hugely experienced and he’s widely respected by all the players. I’m just really happy for him and I think he’s going to do an amazing job.”
There will be little time, though, for the 32-year-old to sit and bask in the warm glow of his unexpected promotion. As underlined by the strong Springbok side named to face Georgia this Friday, the Lions will have to dig deep to win the Test series and can expect a particularly tough assignment up front.
“Any time you come up against South Africa the set piece is going to be absolutely huge,” George said. “It’s something that we as Lions need to pride ourselves on to get this team on the front foot. Whichever eight forwards represent the team at the weekend it’s going to be a big focus for us.”
There is also no avoiding the continuing uncertainty caused by escalating Covid-19 infection rates in southern Africa, not least in the province of Gauteng where the Lions are due to play their opening three games. An official announcement has yet to be made but the growing expectation is that all the remaining games, including the three Tests, will now take place in Cape Town.
The Lions assistant coach Robin McBryde says none of the squad are “under any illusions” as to the seriousness of the health situation in South Africa but stressed the squad were determined to make the best of things. “Everyone realises how fortunate we are to be going ahead and trying to put a smile on peoples faces. We’ve all got to just get on with it. The seriousness of the situation doesn’t allow you to explore any other avenues.”
The Springbok head coach, Jacques Nienaber – already minus two squad members who have tested positive for Covid – has been forced to omit two further isolating players, the wing Makazole Mapimpi and the centre Lukhanyo Am, from his squad to face Georgia but is still confident the tour will be able to proceed.
“I can’t see the tour will be in jeopardy,” Nienaber said. “There are good protocols in place and we make sure we adhere to that to make sure the squad is safe.”
Nienaber’s side to face Georgia features two debutants in the wingers Rosko Specman and Aphelele Fassi, with the uncapped Leicester forward Jasper Wiese also on the bench.