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real deal Conor Murray’s Lions captaincy record may finish nought from one but he will still have huge role to play

Lots of lessons for Lions as ‘Boks lay down marker

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Referee Jaco Peyper explains to British & Irish Lions captain Conor Murray (l) Ken Owens (c) and Iain Henderson his decision not to award a try during the match between South Africa 'A' and the British and Irish Lions. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Referee Jaco Peyper explains to British & Irish Lions captain Conor Murray (l) Ken Owens (c) and Iain Henderson his decision not to award a try during the match between South Africa 'A' and the British and Irish Lions. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Referee Jaco Peyper explains to British & Irish Lions captain Conor Murray (l) Ken Owens (c) and Iain Henderson his decision not to award a try during the match between South Africa 'A' and the British and Irish Lions. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Conor Murray’s captaincy came as a shock to everyone, not least the man himself. The return of Alun-Wyn Jones means that Wednesday night’s loss may be the extent of his on-field experience in the role.

Privately, the Limerick man might just be relieved to hand the proverbial arm-band back to the most capped player in rugby history who has made a remarkable recovery from a dislocated shoulder.

He has enough on his plate without needing the ancillary elements of leading the team.

There was so much going on in this shadow Test match, a game of furious intensity that will have huge ramifications for the series itself.

Don’t be fooled by the official description of this as a South Africa ‘A’ team; there were no caps on offer for the home side, but they played as if this was the real deal.

Although his position in the team was bizarrely questioned in the Sky Sports studio before the game, Murray is one of those Lions who will certainly be in the starting team at this venue on Saturday week.

For 40 minutes, he endured an experience he had to go through in Ireland v England in recent years. It’s no fun being the scrum-half on back-foot ball.

His pack was monstered in the first-half and as a result the Lions captain was forced to dig for dirty ball. His kicking, so often a source of strength, wasn’t on the money and he wasn’t helped by an off-colour Owen Farrell who made even worse errors that cost his team.

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British & Irish Lions player Louis Rees-Zammit is stopped just short of the try line. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

British & Irish Lions player Louis Rees-Zammit is stopped just short of the try line. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

British & Irish Lions player Louis Rees-Zammit is stopped just short of the try line. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)


“It was massively physical, something we needed. We hadn’t been tested to that level, that will stand to us,” the captain said. “The breakdown will be the battle. The team manages to get on the front-foot, wins the air. It was good to face it live.”

Rassie Erasmus spoke in the build-up about being able to land a “body-blow” on the tourists in this auxiliary fourth Test and his team came out of isolation with a furious intensity. This game took place against the back-drop of the Covid outbreak that ripped through the world champions camp, against the social unrest in Kwazulu-Natal and Gauteng that have been dominating the news in South Africa.

The Springboks are so often asked to fly the flag of unity in their divided country and you wondered whether this time the pressure would be too much, yet despite having only one match since the World Cup final in 2019, they tore into their task and made these Lions look all too human.

And yet, they faded worryingly. The Lions’ decision to tap penalties in the ‘22’ in the closing stages of the first half forced Faf de Klerk and Marco van Staden into shipping yellow cards on their own line and yet the 13-men defended their way to half-time.

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There are so many questions about both of these teams. The Lions thrived at scrum-time, but struggled to handle the defensive maul and were dominated at the ruck.

Errors in their kicking-game cost them two first-half tries; their passing was too often behind the gainline, they lost too many collisions.

We don’t yet know why they stuck to their Exeter Chiefs-style strategy of tapping penalties in the ‘22’. Certainly, when they were facing 13 men a scrum made more sense, while they seemed to play themselves into an arm wrestle when they didn’t need to.

To this powerful Springbok defence, it was meat and drink.

After half-time, the home side faded and the men in red grew into their task. As they started to win collisions, their captain grew in influence, creative with a wraparound and dictating the pace of the game.

But after a week in isolation, attack coach Gregor Townsend has much work to do, Perhaps they were keeping their powder dry, but the tourists need more when they have the ball if they’re going to unlock this Springbok defence.

A scrappy second-half grew tenser as it went on. The result will ultimately become a footnote in the history of this tour, but nobody wanted to cede an inch.

As Murray trooped off with three and a half minutes remaining, the game was still in the balance and there was nothing Gareth Davies could do to change the state of play.

His captaincy record may finish at 0/1, but he will still have a big role to play in the Test Series.

The Lions now know the scale of the challenge ahead.

In 10 days’ time, the ’Boks will be sharper and will have more front-liners available, while the Lions will have their full Test side out.

The match surely settled the debate around whether to play a third second-row, they’ll need Tadhg Beirne or Courtney Lawes to meet fire with fire, but there are still huge selection debates at out-half, second-row, in the back-three and in midfield where Gatland could do with Robbie Henshaw getting through his return on Saturday.

First blood has gone to the Springboks, but the wound is superficial. The Lions’ 100 per cent record is gone, but they learnt more from this 80 minutes than they did in the three previous weeks in South Africa.

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