Wednesday, August 4

Conor Murray and his Lions face a test of determination on a unique tour of South Africa | British and Irish lions


HHistory is littered with rugby tours that ended up eroding the determination of everyone involved. England’s trip to the southern hemisphere in 1998 was quickly dubbed the “Tour of Hell” after the bottom team’s 76-0 loss to Australia and Wales still remember the famous and grim 1988 tour of New Zealand, when the All Blacks they scored more than 50. points in both tests.

Former Welsh center John Devereux shudders even now: “We don’t talk much about that tour… because many of us have parked it in a very dark place, never to return. The itinerary was brutal, each provincial game was like a test game and they put us in the shitiest hotels you’ve ever seen.

“It was winter. We went to bed in our tracksuit. It was like being in the movie Psycho. All we needed was a maniac with a knife in the shower. “

A tough old game, the tours, but could it be that Devereux’s memories, as recounted to Ross Harries in his excellent book Behind The Dragon, are about to be pushed off the all-time podium of unfortunate rugby expeditions? ? Here’s the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa, which is finally remembered as a life-enhancing sporting event, but it’s fair to say that the early omens have been far less than encouraging.

Because as the Lions touring team unpacks and adjusts to their new surroundings in Johannesburg for Saturday’s scheduled opener against their provincial namesakes, the locally soaring Covid-19 statistics cannot be gleefully overlooked. In South Africa, a rugby tour can never be completely isolated from the country and there are more pressing questions than whether the Lions or the Springboks will win the test series.

The latest and strictest lockdown measures announced by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will clearly make life more difficult 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 incarceration in a hotel, the inability to go out for coffee in the event of a possible infection, and the echo of empty stalls rarely. be things of which happy memories for a lifetime. They are facts.

With so much uncertainty already hanging around, it just took the loss of Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric to injury in Saturday’s pre-tour game against Japan at Murrayfield to further darken the Lions’ mood. There is no doubt that the loss of the captain before the squad flew is a blow to the project. As with Alun Wyn Jones, Tipuric is too good of a player to be easily replaced.

However, it’s all relative, and three of the Lions’ last four tours ended up being led by more than one captain during the test series. In 2017 Sam Warburton missed the first test and the honor went to Peter O’Mahony, in 2013 Alun Wyn Jones replaced Warburton for the final test in Sydney and in 2005 the injured Brian O’Driscoll was replaced by Gareth Thomas.

Bundee Aki's temperature is checked upon arrival in South Africa.
Bundee Aki’s temperature is checked upon arrival in South Africa. Photograph: Dan Sheridan / INPHO / Shutterstock

With Paul O’Connell leading the Lions in 2009, it is interesting to note that it has been 20 years since an Englishman led the Lions to a series of Trials. Warren Gatland, however, will have been aware of the unique circumstances of the 2021 challenge when he chose Irish scrum-half Conor Murray as his new tour captain after Jones’ desperate shoulder dislocation.

A trip that typically involves sitting in a hotel trying to boost collective morale requires a popular individual as a captain with a good temper who also turns out to be a sure starter for the first test. In Murray’s case, the fact that he is already a tactical leader and talks to the referee a lot will have been a plus, as will his insider knowledge of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber’s methods from his time in Munster.

It is not the first time that Gatland has not been swayed by reputation or any other consideration other than what will best help the Lions win the series.

Instead, there are new reputations to build, with replacements Adam Beard and Josh Navidi well known at Gatland from their days coaching in Wales. One or two established individuals will have to improve 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 stuck in the minds of management to be part of the team of proof. .

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

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

To fly home victorious, the 2021 Lions are going to require players of similar durability, mentally and physically.

This is an excerpt from our weekly rugby union email, The Breakdown. To subscribe to the breakdown, visit this page and follow the instructions.


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