WHAT price is sporting glory when it takes place against the back-drop of actual death? Conor Murray and his Lions arrive in South Africa today with major questions over the viability and moral standing of the tour.
ohannesburg, where they’ll acclimatise and prepare for their first match against the Gauteng Lions on Saturday, is at the epicentre of the third wave of Covid-19 and experts are predicting that things will get very bad in the province that is home to more than 12 million people.
Yesterday, Springbok coaches Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber had hoped to welcome the entire squad for the first time as the European-based players arrived, but the required PCR testing returned three positive results and now the world champions are in isolation.
Vincent Koch, Herschel Jantjes and Sbu Nkosi will await the results of their re-tests today, while SA Rugby will identify their close contacts.
The language is familiar, the systems in place have largely kept sport on our televisions for the guts of 18 months and yet the unique nature of the Lions works against it in this scenario.
Sky Sports often overdo the ‘immortality’ shtick, but what makes this sporting anachronism great is the on and off-pitch buy-in, the old school touring element and the sporting theatre of the Test series.
Already, the Lions are only staying in two South African cities and as a result of the increasingly volatile situation around Johannesburg, they may relocate to Cape Town sooner rather than later and stay there for the rest of the tour.
That means no matches at altitude in their 5-star bubble, training, playing, eating and drinking in one anothers’ pockets for the duration of their six-week stint.
It now seems impossible that fans will be allowed to attend the games, meaning the theatre element will be reduced significantly.
This tour was already supremely compromised due to the pandemic, but the financial and commercial imperatives meant the show had to go on.
With short careers, it’s hard to blame the players for wanting to play and for some, this is their only shot at Lions glory. But what’s the price?
Normally, the Lions’ arrival in their host country is a ceremonial affair.
Today, Murray will step off the plane with a mask across his face and will be whisked off to the team’s enclave, where they’ll be sheltered from their hosts for the duration.
For the Irish scrum-half, it’s a real step into the unknown.
The 32-year-old is a world-leader in his position, a consistently excellent player across a decade of top-level rugby and a Lion with five Tests of experience behind him from his previous two tours.
And yet, he’s never been seen as captaincy material, whether it was at school in St Munchin’s, during his time with Young Munster and Garryowen or as a senior player with Munster, Ireland or the Lions.
He wasn’t asked during his in-house interview with the Lions’ media team yesterday, but it seems that the first time Murray will have ever captained a rugby team will be the Lions in South Africa this summer.
It’s a recognition of the esteem in which he is held in the game and within the squad and of his nailed on status as a Test starter.
It’s an enormous honour, but it comes with a lot of responsibility.
Murray will now become the face of his team. The nature of the bubble means that his commercial obligations may be reduced, but he’ll still be sent out on media duties more often than he’s used to.
Although the game has changed in recent years, there is an expectation that a Lions captain may have to deliver some rousing speeches to gee up the troops.
He’ll have the added responsibility for in-game team strategy and decision-making and he’ll have to manage the referees against the World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi.
Murray will also be the link between the dressing-room and the coaching booth and one imagines that the claustrophobic nature of bubble-life means that that communication channel, in particular, must be strong for the Lions to thrive.
It’s a lot to ask of a first-time captain. Murray is a mature, calm presence. He’s personable and well-liked, his on-pitch performances lend him a status that will help his case and he’s been around the block long enough that there’s no point trying to be Paul O’Connell or Sam Warburton.
Murray is a polished media performer, but the added responsibility means that he will field more difficult questions and may have to defend the Lions’ very presence on South African soil if things continue to get worse.
Already, local medics are using words like “catastrophe” and predicting scenes like those we witnessed in India as the Delta variant ripped through that country.
Murray has never had to be a politician before, but it might be worth upping his diplomacy skills in the next couple of days.
Last Saturday’s hollow win over Japan was a reminder of how tough this tour is going to be.
For the Lions to lose their captain after seven minutes was a disaster, the kind of thing we’d normally describe as ‘tragic’ if things weren’t so serious outside the bubble.
Alun-Wyn Jones was the senior man on this tour, an old hand with that rugby gravitas that allowed him to speak for his squad. Now, Murray must find that voice.
That Gatland chose the Irish scrum-half was an indication that many of the leaders on tour have a lot of work to do to get into the Test team.
Owen Farrell may be England captain, Ken Owens is very much a safe pair of hands, but neither is sure of their place. Maro Itoje is, but Gatland clearly believes he needs someone in authority to calm him down at times.
So, it is Murray’s honour. He has some time to adapt to the biggest responsibility of his sporting career.
While the Lions were in the air last night, South Africa went into lockdown once again. They arrive into a largely unvaccinated country in the grip of a potential disaster.
At some point, the locals may begin to wonder why resources are being wasted on a sporting folly. From a public relations standpoint, the Lions may end up walking a tightrope.
Murray is a brilliant player and deserves his shot at the captaincy. But it’s going to throw things at him he’s never faced before due to the strange nature of the circumstances.
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