Performance under pressure: Reluctant captains Kolisi and Murray go for glory in Lions series
South Africa’s Siya Kolisi and the British & Irish Lions’ Conor Murray, the two captains who will lead their teams out on to the field, will both be chasing victory in the upcoming Lions tour.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
Springbok captain Siya Kolisi and his British & Irish Lions counterpart Conor Murray have more in common than most people might think. For starters, neither man ever dreamt that they would lead their respective teams in a Test series that is, in many ways, bigger than a World Cup.
Both live by the philosophy that actions speak louder than words. Both believe that a captain is only as strong as his leadership group. Kolisi has grown into this role over the past three years, but he argues that his personal success cannot be separated from the team’s success, and that he’s always going to be a cog in a greater machine.
“Everyone who knows me will tell you that I’ve never seen myself as a captain,” Kolisi said in an interview earlier this year. Indeed, the boy from the poverty-stricken township of Zwide grew up with more modest ambitions.
Kolisi realised a lifelong dream when he won a professional contract with the Stormers in 2010. Two years later, he made his first Super Rugby appearance. In 2013, he made his Test debut against Scotland and turned in a man-of-the-match performance.
Captaincy, however, wasn’t on his radar.
Stormers stepping stone
That all changed in 2017 after regular Stormers skipper Juan de Jongh suffered a serious injury and Kolisi was asked to step up. At the time, he felt that he was ready for the responsibility and that his role as the captain aligned with his duties as a father of four.
When Rassie Erasmus took the reins as director of rugby in early 2018, rumours circulated regarding his preferred captain. When it was put to Kolisi that his name was on the shortlist, he expressed genuine surprise.
He went out of his way to extol the virtues of frontrunners such as Duane Vermeulen and Handré Pollard. Although he was, by all accounts, doing an excellent job as the Stormers skipper, he still didn’t see himself as a potential Springbok captain.
Therefore, Kolisi may understand what Murray is going through at present. Murray has proven himself to be one of the world’s best players over the past decade, but he has never captained his country and has only led his club on a single occasion.
Murray’s road to the Lions captaincy
Compared with Kolisi, Murray enjoyed a very different beginning to his life and indeed his rugby career. After progressing through the ranks at the Garryowen club in Limerick, the scrumhalf started regularly for Irish giants Munster. He debuted for Ireland at the 2011 World Cup and went on to amass a total of 94 Test caps for his country and the Lions.
During that period, Murray won three Six Nations titles and was part of the Ireland team that recorded several historical firsts, including a ground-breaking win on SA soil as well as inaugural victory over the All Blacks (both in 2016).
He also featured in the Lions’ series win against Australia in 2013 and the drawn series against New Zealand in 2017 – a result that was viewed by many as a success, given the All Blacks’ dominance at home over a period of 10 years.
And yet, it’s fair to say that these experiences have not prepared him for the challenge that awaits.
Backline captain for the Lions
Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones sustained a serious shoulder injury in the recent warm-up game against Japan and did not travel with the squad to South Africa. Since the team’s arrival, many have questioned Warren Gatland’s decision to appoint Murray as a replacement, given the nature of a tour in this part of the world.
Jones is the man best suited to a challenge that will test the Lions’ physical and mental fortitude like never before. The 35-year-old lock has won 157 caps – more than any other player in history – and has a close relationship with Gatland, having worked with the coach for 11 years at Wales and on three previous tours with the Lions.
His ability to frustrate opponents and influence referees has been described by opposition players and coaches as a superpower. His teammates often speak about his physicality and determination as inspiring.
Gatland and the other Lions coaches have done their best to assure the public and the media that Murray is a worthy replacement. The fact remains that a Lions side without Jones in the engine room is far less imposing and that this particular team will take on a slightly different identity with a scrumhalf at the helm.
Ian McGeechan coached the Lions on the two previous tours to South Africa. On both occasions, he favoured a lock as his captain. Martin Johnson led the Lions to a 2-1 series victory in 1997, while Paul O’Connell was in charge when the Lions lost two of their three Tests in 2009. McGeechan felt that picking a second row forward as the captain sent the right message regarding the Lions’ intent in a physical battle with South Africa. He also believed that it gave the Lions a psychological advantage at the coin toss, where the Lions skipper would look down on his Springbok counterpart.
Gatland’s plan to select another towering skipper has been scuppered by Jones’s untimely injury. As a result, Murray looks set to become the first back to lead the Lions against the Boks in more than 50 years. Irish fullback Tom Kiernan captained the Lions side that went down 3-0 in SA back in 1968.
“Alun Wyn will obviously be a big loss, both on and off the field, but will be ably replaced by Conor,” Gatland said after the Lions win against Japan in Edinburgh. “Conor is an outstanding rugby player and is held in the highest regard with both the players and coaches. As a three-time Lions tourist, he knows what will be required as captain and I am certain he will lead the squad with excellence.”
‘Gatland making a mistake’
Former Ireland scrumhalf John Robbie, who toured South Africa with the Lions in 1980, believes that backing an untried captain is a mistake.
“Conor Murray, I’m in awe of the man, I really am,” Robbie told the Irish Independent. “Having said that, I think it’s a hell of a risk to have made him captain. It just worries me that Conor doesn’t seem to have captained anybody in the past.
“If someone hasn’t been there, you don’t quite know what is going to happen. If, let’s say, the pressure of captaincy was so great that it affected his game, the single most dangerous thing on a Lions tour is when you have a captain who is not worth his Test place; it can have a devastating effect on team morale.”
Murray and the Lions may well succumb to the pressure over the next few weeks. And yet, there is a chance that all the doubt around the new skipper and the tourists’ prospects may inspire the team to produce a performance for the ages.
Indeed, the Boks and Kolisi himself are all too familiar with this sort of script. They’ve been written off more than a few times over the past three years.
Erasmus was criticised when he appointed Kolisi as Bok captain in 2018. At the ensuing press conference, one journalist went as far as to ask Kolisi – the first black African to lead South Africa – if he had earned his position on merit and whether he was a political appointment.
The Boks, under Kolisi’s leadership, responded by beating England in a three-match series. They went on to score a rare win against the All Blacks on New Zealand soil.
In 2019, South Africa won their first Rugby Championship title in a decade. After welcoming Kolisi back from a long-term injury, they went on to win the World Cup in Japan.
Kolisi hungry for Lions series victory
Kolisi hasn’t lost his drive to improve since that global tournament. Injuries may have compromised his performance over the past two years, but he remains confident regarding his abilities to make a contribution and empower others within the national setup.
“My approach to leadership is that I’m here to serve,” he said. “I don’t have an ego.
“You can’t get a big head, because the guy next to you will call you out. That’s what I love about this environment.
“It’s been great coming back [after 20 months in the international wilderness], and we are excited about the opportunity to get back on to the field against Georgia, and then to participate in a special series against the Lions.”
As was the case in 2019, the Boks won’t be short on motivation. They will be playing for a nation that has suffered a great deal during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We’re in a privileged position because we can still do our jobs, but we’re not just doing this for ourselves,” Kolisi said. “We’re playing for each other and our families. We’re also playing for everyone out there who needs some hope.
“We won’t change their situation, but maybe we can put a smile on their faces for a little while.” DM168
3 July, Ellis Park, 5pm
Lions vs British & Irish Lions
7 July, Ellis Park, 7pm
Sharks vs British & Irish Lions
10 July, Loftus Versfeld, 5pm
Bulls vs British & Irish Lions
14 July, Cape Town Stadium, 7pm
SA “A” vs British & Irish Lions
17 July, Cape Town Stadium, 5pm
Stormers vs British & Irish Lions
24 July, Cape Town Stadium, 5pm
Springboks vs British & Irish Lions – 1st Test
31 July, FNB Stadium, 5pm
Springboks vs British & Irish Lions – 2nd Test
7 August, FNB Stadium, 5pm
Springboks vs British & Irish Lions – 3rd Test
Lions pin hopes on ‘miracle’ recovery for Alun Wyn Jones
British & Irish Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones sustained a serious shoulder injury in the warm-up game against Japan in Edinburgh on 26 June. Coach Warren Gatland reacted by calling Adam Beard into the travelling party as a second-row replacement, and handing Irish scrumhalf Conor Murray the Lions captaincy.
Since arriving in South Africa, the Lions have received word that Jones’s injury is not as bad as first feared. The 157-Test veteran may yet recover in time for the three-Test series against the Springboks – which begins on 24 July in Cape Town.
“He’s kind of optimistic that a miracle may happen, and then he can get himself right,” said Gatland. “We’re just going to assess it and see how the next couple of weeks [go] in terms of that. I think the specialist said, when he had to look at it, that it wasn’t quite as bad as he thought it would be.
“We’re going to monitor that and as we come towards the end of the tour, or if we pick up an injury and he’s making amazing progress, something can happen. You never know. So, it’s kind of one of those just wait and see situations.” DM168
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