Conor Murray admits even he was surprised to be appointed British and Irish Lions captain once Alun Wyn Jones had been ruled out of the tour to South Africa by a dislocated shoulder.
The Lions are reeling from the devastating loss of Jones after he lasted only seven minutes of Saturday’s 28-10 victory over Japan at Murrayfield.
As a veteran of three previous tours and the world’s most capped international, the decorated Wales skipper was a talisman for the squad and Warren Gatland’s overwhelming choice for the role.
Now into his shoes steps Murray, an on-field general who is favourite to start the Test series at scrum-half, but a player with no captaincy experience for Ireland or his provincial side Munster.
It is a leftfield appointment by Gatland who overlooked more vaunted campaigners such as Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Ken Owens.
When asked if he was surprised by his elevation to tour leader, Murray said: “A little bit to be honest.
“I didn’t even think about it. I knew that Al was out and then you look around the squad and there are so many contenders…
“Warren asked me just before the cap ceremony and it was surreal. I still don’t have my head around it, but it’s an unbelievable honour. It’s something that I never thought would be possible.
“I didn’t think about it long. I said, ‘absolutely, it’ll be a massive honour. Thank you very much for this opportunity’.
“Then you kind of think about how big it is and then obviously my phone has gone a bit crazy since it was announced.
“I tried to call my girlfriend Joanna, but her phone was on one per cent as usual. Her phone was off and my dad is in Edinburgh, he was out with his friends having a few drinks, and so he was the first person I spoke to.
“My mum’s in Kerry and I rang her. She’s down with a few friends who were watching the Japan game and they’re celebrating too, so it still hasn’t sunk in to be honest.”
Jones’ cruel misfortune has robbed the Lions of vast experience but Murray has also been around the Test block, accumulating 89 caps for Ireland and another five for the elite of British and Irish rugby.
The 32-year-old was the starting scrum-half in all three matches against New Zealand in 2017 and provides excellent game management and pinpoint kicking.
“We’re very disappointed to lose Alun Wyn. He’s been brilliant for the first two weeks. I’ve known him from the past two tours and he’s been incredible. It’s a huge loss,” Murray said.
“He came up to me and said ‘congrats and just be yourself’ and I think that’s really important. Growing up, you probably thought you had to try and be a certain type of person to be a leader, but you just have to be yourself.
“Once you have the respect of the group around you, that’s a massive plus, a massive thing that can calm you down a bit.
“If you have the respect of the lads and you do what you do and you do it honestly, then it should be fine.
“It’s a huge honour, but there’s such a good group of leaders in this squad that makes it less daunting, definitely. There are lads that you can lean on, lads who have captained their country.
“There’s massive experience there so you know it’ll definitely be a group thing. I’m going to enjoy it and again lean on those boys. It’ll take a bit of getting used to, but it’s such an honour.”
The most pressing task facing the Lions is to integrate Adam Beard and Josh Navidi into their squad as quickly as possible.
Beard is the unexpected choice as Jones’ replacement and Navidi comes in for Justin Tipuric, whose tour is also over because of a shoulder injury sustained in the five-try romp against a disappointing Japan.