British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland believes Conor Murray will rise to the responsibility of captaining the team as the scrumhalf now embarks on his third tour.
Murray has been named as the new captain of the British & Irish Lions after original skipper Alun Wyn Jones was ruled out of the tour of South Africa by a dislocated shoulder.
Wales lock Jones left the field injured just eight minutes into the Lions’ 28-10 warm-up win over Japan in Edinburgh on Saturday following a clear-out at a ruck and a similar injury in the same match has also ruled out compatriot Justin Tipuric.
Their places in the squad for an eight-game tour that culminates with three Tests against the world champion Springboks have been taken by two fellow Wales internationals in Adam Beard and Josh Navidi.
There had been speculation England captain Owen Farrell, team-mate Maro Itoje, Scotland skipper Stuart Hogg or Wales hooker Ken Owens, who took over as captain when Jones went off at Murrayfield, might be appointed to the prestigious post.
But Lions head coach Warren Gatland has opted for Murray, who started against Japan and is a veteran of 89 caps with Ireland and two previous Lions tours.
“We’re all incredibly disappointed for Alun Wyn and Justin,” said Gatland. “The timing of these injuries seem particularly cruel given we fly to South Africa tomorrow (Sunday), but unfortunately they’re part of the game.
“Alun Wyn will obviously be a big loss, both on and off the field, but will be ably replaced by Connor.”
The New Zealander, explaining his decision, said: “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. He will also be well-supported by an experienced leadership group.
“We plan for Adam and Josh to join up with the touring party before we depart for South Africa tomorrow evening.”
Although the 35-year-old Jones was able to join his team-mates for a presentation ceremony, by then the Lions’ worst fears over his prospects of making a fourth tour with the combined side had been realised.
Gatland, speaking soon after the final whistle, told a news conference: “His shoulder dislocated…It’s very disappointing. He’s been around rugby long enough but he’ll be gutted.
“The decision’s pretty much made. I was speaking to the physios and they’ve spoken to Alun Wyn.”
The Lions should have been buoyed by a convincing victory over a Japan side playing their first international since losing on home soil to eventual champions South Africa in the quarter-finals of the 2019 World Cup.
But instead they had to cope with the loss of Jones and Tipuric even before they had arrived in South Africa.
But former Ireland and Wales boss Gatland, looking for a third successive undefeated Test series as head coach of the Lions following a 2013 victory in Australia and 2017 draw in New Zealand, said it was vital squad morale remained intact.
“No one is in shock because if you’re in shock it reflects back into the whole squad,” he insisted.
“We understand things are different and fluid and we have to move on and be able to react and make decisions and that is the only way you can deal with it,” added the coach.
The Lions have won just two series in South Africa, in 1974 when they were undefeated in tour and international play, winning 21 of 22 matches before a draw in the fourth and final Test, and again in 1997 when the Springboks were the reigning world champions.
Their first game in South Africa is against the Lions in Johannesburg on 3 July, with the first Test in Cape Town on 24 July.
Revised British and Irish Lions 37-man squad for the 2021 tour of South Arica after Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric withdrew through injury on Saturday:
Backs (16): Josh Adams (WAL), Bundee Aki (IRL), Dan Biggar (WAL), Elliot Daly (ENG), Gareth Davies (WAL), Owen Farrell (ENG), Chris Harris (SCO), Robbie Henshaw (IRL), Stuart Hogg (SCO), Conor Murray (IRL, capt), Ali Price (SCO), Louis Rees-Zammit (WAL), Finn Russell (SCO), Duhan van der Merwe (SCO), Anthony Watson (ENG), Liam Williams (WAL)
Forwards (21): Adam Beard (WAL), Tadhg Beirne (IRL), Jack Conan (IRL), Luke Cowan-Dickie (ENG), Tom Curry (ENG), Zander Fagerson (SCO), Taulupe Faletau (WAL), Tadhg Furlong (IRL), Jamie George (ENG), Iain Henderson (IRL), Jonny Hill (ENG), Maro Itoje (ENG), Wyn Jones (WAL), Courtney Lawes (ENG), Josh Navidi (WAL), Ken Owens (WAL), Sam Simmonds (ENG), Kyle Sinckler (ENG), Rory Sutherland (SCO), Mako Vunipola (ENG), Hamish Watson (SCO)
© Agence France-Presse