Warren Gatland received a double-boost on Thursday with the news that Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray has declared himself fully fit ahead of the British and Irish Lions tour, while Toulon have agreed to honour a clause in Leigh Halfpenny’s contract that allows him to join up with the squad earlier than the French side would normally allow.
Murray has not played any rugby since suffering a shoulder ‘stinger’ in Ireland’s defeat by Wales during the Six Nations on 10 March, having seen his time out of the game stretch from an expected two weeks to two months.
After naming Murray in his 41-man squad for the tour of New Zealand, Gatland confirmed that he will not take Murray if he fails to play a game before the Lions depart at the end of this month, but news of Murray’s return will be music to the ears of the Lions head coach, with Murray hinting he could make his comeback as early as this weekend in Munster’s Pro12 clash against Connacht.
“I'm good, finally,” Murray told the Irish Independent. “I've been training with the lads for the last couple of weeks and trained Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, I've been doing gradual return to play contact and yesterday did full contact, tackling people and taking proper hits, getting tackled myself and feeling pretty good.
“So hopefully I'll be playing really soon, potentially I'll be involved this weekend, we'll wait and see how we go.”
The scrum-half did admit that he feared for his place in the squad as he struggled to recover from the injury, as well as missing important matches for Munster. Murray missed the 26-10 defeat by Saracens in the European Champions Cup semi-finals, but should be fit to feature in the Pro12 semi-final in two weeks’ time.
He said: “Initially we thought it would come back a lot sooner than it has come back and with the uncertainty around the nerve injury, I was pretty worried because there's Cups to play for and there's a big tour in the summer that thankfully I was selected on and really want to go because it's going to be massive.”
Murray added: “If it's not this weekend for whatever reason, if I wasn't picked or people wanted to rest me a little bit longer, that would give me another week as it's the Champions Cup final to regenerate as well. I would put a good bet on that I would be back for the semi-final. With the way I've been progressing over the last couple of weeks, it would suggest that I am ready to play.”
The Irishman was the first-choice No 9 on the 2013 tour of Australia and has been tipped to be Gatland’s preferred starter again this time around, providing he can regain his fitness and hold off competition from Rhys Webb of Wales and England’s Ben Youngs.
One player that Murray featured alongside in 2013 was Halfpenny, and he looks set to do so once again after the Wales full-back was given permission to leave Toulon before the Top 14 final. The French league does not finish until 3 June, a week later than the finals in both the Premiership and Pro12 and the same date as the Lions’ first tour match against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians, but Halfpenny ensured that a clause was written in to his contract during his renewal talks with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal that allowed him to feature on a full Lions tour.
“I spoke with Mourad and said I would want to go on the Lions tour, if selected,” Halfpenny told The Telegraph.
“He said to me: ‘We appreciate as a Welshman and a Brit, we know how big the Lions is for you and we are happy to let you go’. He congratulated me on the selection and wished me all the best.
“Had I not had that written in then I would have had to look at my options, really. Representing the Lions is the pinnacle of any rugby player’s career. That was a big part of my decision.”