Every game, every tournament, every poor performance all now count for more in the year of the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.
The elite of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales have selection in their sights for the summer trip to the home of the All Blacks in June, and in four weeks’ time the Six Nations Championship will allow them make their strongest case yet for selection.
While an extended squad will travel, those on the plane will have a singular goal – making the starting XV for the key test fixtures against the world champions. With some six warm-up games to play before the first All Blacks test and another before the second, staking a claim for a coveted place on the match day 23 will continue throughout the tour.
Where competition is fierce across all positions, at scrum-half, things simply couldn’t be tighter. Following an ankle injury to Wales’ Rhys Webb, thus ruling him out of contention, there are now really only two names in the hat for the starting berth for the famous touring jersey, England’s Ben Youngs and Ireland’s Conor Murray.
Youngs and Murray are rated among the very best number 9s in world rugby today. In the evolution of the modern game, both have become pivotal players on the field and have demonstrated the ability to drive their respective sides forward in the same manner you would expect from an out-half.
Youngs, at 5’10” and 14st, cuts an imposing figure. Stocky, fast and strong, he is known for his razor sharp thinking in attack and can as easily break the gain line himself as he can pick out the right pass to unlock a defence from the base of a ruck.
Having become the preferred choice over Danny Care for England in 2016, he is regarded as the future of the position for the Red Rose.
Playing his club rugby with the Leicester Tigers, the 27-year-old is a proven match winner, with the ability to turn a game on its head in a moment of magic.
Already a Lion from the 2013 tour of Australia and with over 60 caps for England, Youngs comes with a wealth of experience that culminated recently with his being named England’s best player of the autumn series, where, over the course of the series, he beat some 17 defenders with his quick feet and penchant for dummying opponents.
Youngs’ attacking style of play has seen him record twelve tries for England since his debut in 2010, with three of those coming in 2016. However, this term for his club the explosive scrum half has yet to dot down either in the Aviva Premiership or the Champions Cup.
As for Conor Murray, at 6’2″ and almost 15 stone, the man from Limerick is of the new breed of scrum-half. Tall, lithe, built for the wing, Murray has, over the last twelve months, developed into a true leader of his peers, moving and directing his team-mates around the field like a general on the battlefield.
Where prolonged absences for Jonathan Sexton have been a worry for Ireland, it has afforded Murray the chance to step up and become a second captain and primary decision maker.
This season the 27-year-old has come of age. In the wake of the tragic loss of head coach Anthony Foley, Murray has driven the Munster juggernaut back to the top tier of European rugby greats and has shown all the characteristics of a true leader.
Similarly for Ireland, his game management, physicality and decision making saw him steer Ireland to victories over the southern hemisphere big three of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in 2016.
Murray’s repertoire has defenders second guessing themselves anytime a ruck forms inside their own 22. Anything from a precision pass, grubber kick or a thunderous pick-and-go could come from the Munster man.
Such has been Murray’s growth this season that even while controlling the play from his half-back position, he has contributed some three tries for Munster, while adding four for Ireland in 2016.
As recently as December, Lions boss Gatland voiced his opinion that the Ireland scrum-half was the man to catch with regard to the starting place for the tourists. Munster’s 38-0 decimation of Leicester in Thomond Park in the Champions Cup only days after Gatland’s comments further strengthened his position as the number one pick.
If the squad were to be confirmed now, Murray would surely be Gatland’s first choice scrum-half, with Youngs his backup.
However, the 2017 Six Nations is almost upon us and now, for the first time, the championship will see bonus points being awarded.
The result of this introduction will be a more expansive and attacking style of play as sides push for the big wins. This brand of rugby will suit both Murray and Youngs as their proven attributes will afford them many opportunities to shine.
Assuming they remain injury free, both are certain for Lions selection in 2017. The next two months should determine just who gets the number 9 jersey and who gets to warm the bench.
Right now, Murray is shading it.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena
On this week’s Oval Office Podcast we look at Leicester Tigers’ options and discuss Johnny Sexton’s potential Lions tour.