Conor Murray and his Lions face test of resolve in unique South Africa tour


History is littered with rugby tours that ended up eroding the resolve of all involved. England’s trip to the southern hemisphere in 1998 was swiftly dubbed the “Tour of Hell’ after the understrength team’s 76-0 defeat by Australia and in Wales they still recall the famously grim 1988 tour of New Zealand when the All Blacks rattled up 50-plus points in both Tests.

The former Welsh centre John Devereux winces even now: “We don’t talk about that tour much … because a lot of us have parked it in a very dark place, never to return. The itinerary was brutal, every provincial match was like a Test match and they put us in the shittiest hotels you have ever seen in your life.

“It was wintertime. We were going to bed with our tracksuits on. It was like being in the film Psycho. All we needed was a knife-wielding maniac in the shower.”

Tough old game, touring, but could it be that Devereux’s memories, as recounted to Ross Harries in his excellent book Behind The Dragon, are about to be nudged off the all-time podium of ill-fated rugby expeditions? Here’s to the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa being ultimately remembered as a life-enhancing sporting event but it is fair to say the early portents have been rather less than encouraging.

Because as the Lions touring squad unpack and adjust to their new surroundings in Johannesburg for Saturday’s scheduled first match against their provincial namesakes, the sharply rising Covid-19 statistics locally cannot be blithely overlooked. In South Africa, a rugby tour can never be viewed entirely in isolation from the country and there are more pressing issues than whether the Lions or the Springboks will win the Test series.

The latest, tighter lockdown measures announced by the South African president Cyril Ramaphosa are clearly going to make life tougher for everyone, whether or not they are connected to the tour. There is never an absolute guarantee as to what a Lions expedition could or should look like but prolonged hotel incarceration, an inability even to pop out for a coffee in case of possible infection and echoing empty stands are not usually the stuff of which lifelong happy memories are made.

With so much uncertainty already swirling around, it scarcely needed the loss of Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric to injury in Saturday’s pre-tour fixture against Japan at Murrayfield to darken the Lions’ mood further. There is no question whatsoever that the loss of the captain before the squad had flown out is a blow to the project. As with Alun Wyn Jones, Tipuric is too good a player to be easily replaced.

Everything is relative, though, and three of the past four Lions tours have ended up being led by more than one captain during the Test series. In 2017, Sam Warburton missed the first Test and the honour went to Peter O’Mahony, in 2013 Alun Wyn Jones took over from Warburton for the final Test in Sydney and in 2005 the injured Brian O’Driscoll was replaced by Gareth Thomas.

With Paul O’Connell leading the Lions in 2009, it is interesting to note that 20 years have now passed since an Englishman led the Lions into a Test series. Warren Gatland, though, will have been mindful of the unique circumstances of the 2021 challenge when he picked the Irish scrum-half Conor Murray as his new tour captain after Jones’s desperately unfortunate dislocated shoulder.

A trip that will regularly involve sitting in a hotel trying to bolster collective morale requires a popular individual as captain with a good temperament who also happens to be certain starter for the first Test. In Murray’s case,the fact he already is a tactical leader and talks a lot to the referee will have been plus points, as will his inside knowledge of the methods of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber from their time at Munster.

Not for the first time, Gatland has not been swayed by reputation or any consideration other than what will best help the Lions win the series.

Instead, there are new reputations to be forged, with replacements Adam Beard and Josh Navidi well known to Gatland from his Wales coaching days. One or two established individuals will have to up their games, with the choice of Murray having effectively confirmed that more established captains such as Ken Owens, Owen Farrell, Stuart Hogg and Iain Henderson are not nailed on in the management’s minds to make the Test team.

It will feel strange, even so, not to have Alun Wyn Jones leading the team out. Adversity has long brought the best out in him and this tour looks sure to contain plenty of it. As Kipling might have put it, if you can can keep your head while all those Covid-19 testers are losing theirs you will be a man, my son.

Those now on the ground in South Africa could also do worse than channel the spirit shown by the Swinton forward Harry Eagles during the first Lions tour to Australia in 1888. Not only did his tour captain and clubmate, Bob Seddon, die in a boating accident on the Hunter River near Maitland but Eagles ended up playing in all 54 games on the 11-month tour, 35 of them rugby matches in addition to 19 Aussie Rules contests.