Wilkinson could still join Lions squad as cover says Gatland

Welsh skipper Sam Warburton will lead the Lions, who travel with only two fly-halves

Jonny Wilkinson retires from England rugby

SAM WARBURTON will captain the British and Irish Lions on the tour of Australia this summer after coach Warren Gatland named his 37-man squad today. The appointment of the Welsh flanker as leader of the pack did not come as a surprise, but the absence of Jonny Wilkinson and the decision to travel with only two fly-halves did raise eyebrows.

However, there was a twist after the announcement when Gatland revealed that Wilkinson had turned down the chance to join the tour, but would be available as cover in the event of an injury.

Other unexpected selections included England props Matt Stevens, who retired from international duty in 2011, and Mako Vunipola, who is not first choice for England. Scottish winger Sean Maitland was also a surprise pick and could end up playing against his cousin, Australian Quade Cooper.

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Maitland and Vunipola are two of eight players in the squad born outside the British Isles, and there are as many Polynesians in the camp as Scots.

Other notable omissions include Irish hooker Rory Best, England captain Chris Robshaw and centre Brad Barritt.

The squad is the youngest since 1968 with an average age of 26. However, there are experienced players including Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll on his fourth Lions tour, and 2009 captain Paul O'Connell, plus Welsh hooker Adam Jones.

Gatland said he had faith in Warburton as captain, and pointed out he has been the most successful national skipper in the northern hemisphere in recent years. Prime Minister David Cameron agreed and announced: "I can think of no better choice than Sam Warburton to lead the Lions. He'll give the same the passion and pride as when leading Wales."

Much of the reaction centred on the decision to take two specialist number tens to Australia. Ian Robertson of the BBC said: "I would certainly have taken Jonny Wilkinson. They are going with only two fly-halves and that seems a massive risk."

However, Daily Telegraph rugby correspondent Gavin Mairs tweeted that Scottish full-back Stuart Hogg would provide cover.

Former England and Lions player Austin Healey seemed unimpressed and said the squad was "missing a spark". He added that both fly halves would face a gruelling time as they would be in the squad for every match.

Telegraph writer James Corrigan was stunned by the absence of Wilkinson. He said the decision was "bemusing to the point of being mind-achingly baffling".

However, Lions coach Andy Irvine suggested that Wilkinson had turned down an invitation to tour. "He ruled himself out," Irvine told the BBC, according to The Times. "He feels his body isn't in right shape to complete a tour like this. I admire his honesty and integrity. He could be available as an injury replacement."

Gatland later confirmed the story to Sky Sports and revealed: "We left it open. If there is an injury later in the tour he said we can have a conversation if it pops up... it's nice to have potentially him involved."

So, the window remains open for Wilkinson and Northamptoin winger Ben Foden summed up the thoughts of many when he tweeted: "Jonny W will definitely be getting a late call, 2 tens for 10 tests??? Not fooling anyone!"

Lions Squad:

Backs: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Rob Kearney (Ireland), Tommy Bowe (Ireland), Alex Cuthbert (Wales), Sean Maitland (Scotland), George North (Wales), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Wales), Manu Tuilagi (England), Owen Farrell (England), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Conor Murray (Ireland), Mike Phillips (Wales), Ben Youngs (England).

Forwards: Dan Cole (England), Cian Healy (Ireland), Gethin Jenkins (Wales), Adam Jones (Wales), Matt Stevens (England), Mako Vunipola (England), Dylan Hartley (England), Richard Hibbard (Wales), Tom Youngs (England), Ian Evans (Wales), Richie Gray (Scotland), Alun-Wyn Jones (Wales), Paul O'Connell (Ireland), Geoff Parling (England), Tom Croft (England), Toby Faletau (Wales), Jamie Heaslip (Ireland), Dan Lydiate (Wales), Sean O'Brien (Ireland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Sam Warburton (Wales).

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