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Welsh star Warburton to lead Lions but Wilkinson is left out

updated 11:19 AM EDT, Tue April 30, 2013
Welshman Sam Warburton has been chosen to skipper the Lions by coach Warren Gatland
Welshman Sam Warburton has been chosen to skipper the Lions by coach Warren Gatland
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Coach Warren Gatland names a 37-man squad for British & Irish Lions tour of Australia
  • Wales flanker Sam Warburton is named as captain
  • There is no place for fly-half Jonny Wilkinson despite his impressive form for Toulon
  • The first Lions tour of Australia was held in 1899 when the team fielded players from all four Home Nations

(CNN) -- The big cats are out of the bag after the British and Irish players selected for rugby union's prestigious Lions tour of Australia were unveiled in London.

Lions coach Warren Gatland has chosen 15 Welsh, 10 English, nine Irish and three Scottish players in his combined 37-man squad for the three-Test tour which begins in June.

The announcement was a relief for Welsh flanker Sam Warburton, who had been sworn to secrecy by Gatland after being named as captain on his debut Lions tour.

"It's been the hardest thing, lying to my friends for over a week!" said the 24-year-old, who is the youngest tour captain in Lions history.

"Warren phoned me up to tell me nine days ago. I put the phone down and punching the air was my first reaction.

"I've had to tell hardly anybody and that's been very difficult. I told my fiancee and parents but that was it.

"The boys at the Cardiff Blues were asking me if I wanted to go out for food and things like that," added Warburton, referring to his Welsh club. "They were trying to catch me out but I wouldn't let anything slip.

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"If I went through my career without playing for the Lions, I'd be so gutted. It's by far the biggest accolade any British or Irish player could achieve -- it's the ultimate, so I'm absolutely thrilled."

There was no place in the squad, however, for England captain Chris Robshaw or England's 2003 World-Cup winning hero Jonny Wilkinson.

Wilkinson, who now plays in France for Toulon, effectively ruled himself out of contention for the Lions tour, pointing instead to young fly-halves Owen Farrell and Jonathan Sexton, who have both been selected for Lions kicking duties.

"I asked Jonny if he could tour and he said he wasn't available. I wouldn't have made the phone call if it wasn't to offer him a place on the tour," Gatland said.

"He appreciated the call, but I think physically he would struggle to do a tour. He was honest about himself and said 'I'm hanging on with my fingernails here at the moment and I probably need another operation'.

"We asked him about what happens if there is an injury later in the tour and he said 'we can have that conversation later if that crops up.'"

Ireland great and 2005 Lions captain Brian O'Driscoll was also included, with the 34-year-old centre chosen for his fourth successive tour.

Despite retiring from England duty last season, England prop Matt Stevens was added to the Lions squad.

Scotland's New Zealand-born wing Sean Maitland was also included although there was no place for outside half Greig Laidlaw.

"We spent a long time selecting this squad and there were some close calls with a lot of competition for places," said New Zealander Gatland, who coached Wales to Six Nations -- the northern hemisphere's annual tournament -- success in 2013.

"When it came down to it there were three or four positions where we had to make a call between one player and another.

"There's been so much speculation and so many opinions. And that's what selection is - it's a matter of opinion, and it's our opinion.

"But ultimately we chose the players who will give us the best chance of a Test series victory. A Lions tour to Australia only comes around once every 12 years and we believe we have the right balance in the squad to be successful."

The concept of a combined touring Lions side began in 1891 when a group of English and Scottish players took part in a three-Test series against South Africa under the auspices of the Rugby Football Union.

In 1899, the tourists fielded players from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland for the first time as they traveled to Australia to provide them with their first international competition.

The Lions head Down Under again in 2013 determined to avenge their defeat by the Australians in 2001.

The tour begins in Hong Kong against the Barbarians -- an international invitational side based in Britain -- on June 1 and the first Test against Australia follows on June 22 in Brisbane.

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