Sam Warburton will captain the British and Irish Lions’ rugby tour of Hong Kong and Australia after his Wales team won Europe’s Six Nations title. Chris Robshaw was left out and Jonny Wilkinson turned down a place.
Warburton, a 24-year-old openside flanker with a 0-7 playing record against the Wallabies, was chosen to lead the Lions for the 10-match trip ahead of Irishmen Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll.
England captain Robshaw and Wilkinson, whose drop goal won the 2003 World Cup for England, were omitted from a 37-man squad by head coach Warren Gatland, who said Wilkinson ruled himself out to focus on playing for his club Toulon. Ireland skipper Jamie Heaslip was selected, while Scotland captain Kelly Brown missed out. Warburton will do a “fantastic job” with the team, Gatland said.
“In the last two or three years, he’s been the most successful captain in the northern hemisphere,” Gatland said as his tour party was announced at a news conference. “When we sat down to pick a squad, and it’s a fantastically strong squad, we decided that Sam would be one of the names among the starting Test 15. I have a huge amount of respect for Sam. He’s an absolute professional who leads from the front.”
Gatland, who guided Wales to the 2011 World Cup semifinals, picked 15 Welshmen to represent the Lions, who open their tour with a June 1 exhibition against the Barbarians at Hong Kong Stadium. There are 10 Englishmen in the squad, nine Irishmen and three Scots.
“It’s been nine or 10 days since I found out, it’s the hardest secret I have had to keep,” Warburton said. “It’s an accolade that very few people achieve and it’s an unbelievable honor. I am the ultimate optimist and we want to go out there and win every match.”
There had previously been speculation Robshaw might lead the Lions after England’s victory over New Zealand and four wins from five in this year’s Six Nations. Wales also had four wins and won the title on points difference.
“Obviously it’s going to be new for me and I’m going to learn along the way,” Warburton said. “I can’t sit here and say I know what’s going to happen because I don’t. There’s a good Welsh contingent of leaders who I can rely on and there are other experienced players in the squad who can help me along the way. It’s an experience I really can’t wait to begin.”
Scotland wing Sean Maitland and England props Mako Vunipola and Matt Stevens, a 2005 Lions tour member, are surprise selections, while Ireland hooker Rory Best missed out. Twenty-five of the party are first-time Lions tourists.
“There was some robust debate and I know there will be some disappointed players,” Gatland said. “There were some really healthy discussions in every position. The benchmark was the Six Nations.”
Gatland said Wilkinson wasn’t available for the tour.
“He said he really appreciated the call but that he was committed to Toulon and would not be able to travel with the squad,” Gatland told reporters
Wilkinson kicked all Toulon’s points in a 24-12 Heineken Cup semifinal win over Saracens two days ago. His club could be involved in France’s Top 14 final on June 1, the day of the Lions’ match in Hong Kong.
The opening game of nine in Australia is scheduled June 5 against the Western Force Super Rugby team in Perth. The best-of-three Test series against the Wallabies starts June 22 in Brisbane with matches to follow in Melbourne a week later and Sydney on July 6.
The Lions are seeking their first Test series victory since winning in South Africa 16 years ago. They last visited Australia in 2001, when a squad coached by Gatland’s fellow New Zealander Graham Henry lost 2-1. O’Driscoll is the only player remaining from that series and will be on his fourth Lions tour.
Australia is scheduled to name a 25-man squad for the series May 19 and will enter training camp from June 3. A further six players will be added when the final 31-man roster is announced June 11.
U.K. bookmaker Ladbrokes Plc makes the Lions the 8-13 favorites to win the tour. Australia is 5-4 and a drawn series 22-1. It’s the first time in 20 years that the Lions have toured as favorite, the bookmaker said.
The British and Irish Lions, drawn from players in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, currently tour Australia, South Africa or New Zealand on a four-year cycle. Ireland’s O’Connell captained the team on the last tour, which ended with a 2-1 loss to South Africa in 2009.
British and Irish Lions squad: L. Halfpenny, S. Hogg, R. Kearney, G. North, A. Cuthbert, T. Bowe, S. Maitland, B. O’Driscoll, M. Tuilagi, J. Roberts, J. Davies, J. Sexton, O. Farrell, C. Murray, M. Phillips, B. Youngs, G. Jenkins, C. Healy, M. Vunipola, A. Jones, D. Cole, M. Stevens, D. Hartley, R. Hibbard, T. Youngs, I. Evans, R. Gray, A.W. Jones, P. O’Connell, G. Parling, T. Croft, T. Faletau, J. Heaslip, D. Lydiate, S. O’Brien, J. Tipuric, S. Warburton (capt.).