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Did Warren Gatland make the right decision in making Conor Murray British and Irish Lions captain?

Conor Murray

The British and Irish Lions may have beaten Japan rather comfortably last Saturday (28-10), but Warren Gatland’s men certainly didn’t make it out of Murrayfield unscathed.

In fact, with a shoulder injury picked up by Alun Wyn Jones, perhaps the Lions’ most influential player was injured in the warm-up match ahead of their summer tour of South Africa and the Welshman will now miss the crucial game against the Springboks.

Jones, rugby’s most capped male international, is a veteran of the game and was gearing up for his fourth test with the Lions this summer. With his experience, he was an obvious choice to captain the side and he will undoubtably be a massive loss for the Lions when it comes to those crunch fixtures against South Africa in late July — games they are expected to win, according to the Lions Tour odds.

However, whilst the obvious replacement for the captaincy was England skipper Owen Farrell, Gatland, who is on the cusp of his fourth tour as the Lions’ head coach, has instead picked Conor Murray to lead the team out in South Africa.

Scrum-half Murray is a seasoned international with almost 90 senior caps for Ireland. However, what he lacks is experience as a captain — both internationally and at club level for Munster. In fact, the 32-year-old has never captained either!

The other strange aspect of Gatland’s decision to make Murray captain is that he is a back. Forwards tend to make the best captains in the sport of rugby union, and the decision to overlook forwards like England’s Maro Itoje or Wales’ Ken Owens in favour of Murray is one that could come back to bite Gatland should things not go to plan this summer.

That is an area of criticism England coach Eddie Jones and captain Farrell had to deal with in the recent Six Nations, with pundits claiming that the Saracens fly-half couldn’t lead the side properly due to his position, and Gatland could face similar disapproval if the Lions fail to perform.

What Murray, who is now likely to be the first name on the teamsheet, does bring is experience in the famous red jersey of the Lions. This will be the 32-year-old’s third tour with the Lions, and his second as starting scrum-half after he started in all three tests against New Zealand four years ago.

That said, only Taulupe Faletau (14), Farrell (14) and Mako Vunipola (13) have played more games for the Lions than Murray, and with Faletau and Vunipola unlikely to start the tests, it was really a choice between Murray and Farrell for Gatland.

Even Murray was shocked by Gatland’s decision to promote him to captain, claming he was ‘a little bit’ surprised by the announcement, adding: “I didn’t even think about it. I knew that Al was out and then you look around the squad and there are so many contenders.

“Warren asked me just before the cap ceremony and it was surreal. I still don’t have my head around it, but it’s an unbelievable honour. It’s something that I never thought would be possible.

“I didn’t think about it long. I said, ‘absolutely, it’ll be a massive honour. Thank you very much for this opportunity’. Then you kind of think about how big it is and then obviously my phone has gone a bit crazy since it was announced. ”

When you have the best players from four great rugby nations at your disposal, you are never going to be able to please everyone and there’s no doubt that England fans will argue it should have been Farrell and the Welsh support will claim it should have been Owens.

However, the decision is made and only time will tell if Gatland has made the right choice. He has worked with Murray on two prior tours and he has obviously seen leadership qualities within the Irish scrum-half. So, here’s hoping he can lead the boys to glory in South Africa!