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Warburton set to be announced as Lions captain

Sam Warburton is set to be unveiled as British and Irish Lions captain tomorrow - and lead the largest Welsh contingent on tour for 36 years.

The Cardiff Blues flanker has already skippered Wales to a World Cup semi-final and Six Nations Grand Slam during an international career that only began in 2009.

At 24, he would become Wales' youngest Lions tour captain and the first since Phil Bennett took charge for the 1977 New Zealand trip.

Bennett was among 16 Welshmen in that squad and reigning Six Nations champions Wales can realistically expect a 15-player representation in head coach Warren Gatland's 38-man group for Hong Kong and Australia when it is announced at a Middlesex hotel tomorrow morning.

But while Warburton looks to have seen off the captaincy challenges of Irish pair Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll, current England skipper Chris Robshaw could miss out completely.

And he is destined to be joined on the sidelines by 2003 England World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson, who delivered a fly-half masterclass for Toulon at Twickenham yesterday in front of Gatland, and young red rose lock Joe Launchbury.

If Robshaw does not make the cut, he would become England's third captain of the professional era to be overlooked for a Lions tour following Phil de Glanville (1997) and Steve Borthwick (2009).

Gatland and his coaching team held their final selection meeting today, with a fiercely contested battle for back-row places expected to create most debate.

Other areas for discussion included identities of the remaining two props to accompany Cian Healy, Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones and Dan Cole on tour, Scotland lock Richie Gray's fitness and a third fly-half/midfield option behind Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell.

Billy Twelvetrees, Ian Madigan, James Hook and Greig Laidlaw are all thought to be in that latter mix, while it is understood Saracens props Mako Vunipola and Matt Stevens have warranted close scrutiny for front-row selection.

Gray, meanwhile, is battling to overcome a hamstring injury suffered during this season's Six Nations Championship. If guarantees over his fitness can be given to Gatland, then it is thought he will be on the plane to Hong Kong in four weeks' time.

Warburton, though, has no such worries, with Wales team-mates set to join him Down Under including Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, George North, Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips, Adam Jones, Alun-Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Toby Faletau.

Former Lions head coach Sir Ian McGeechan believes Warburton will land the most coveted playing role northern hemisphere rugby can offer.

"I think he would be Warren's favourite," McGeechan told Press Association Sport.

"You do have to have that captain-coach relationship because you need to be honest and get really good feedback, and you need trust both ways, what you are thinking about and how you are developing things.

"You need someone you feel you know well. That is the obvious combination.

"It's a great challenge and a huge responsibility because you are heading up four countries and you have to be comfortable with that. If he is happy with that in his head, then he's favourite.

"It all comes down to the coach-captain relationship. I chose Finlay Calder in 1989 just because I knew him well and knew the sort of things he could do and how good he was at bringing players together.

"It was the same with Gavin Hastings in 1993 and I had Martin Johnson because I knew the respect that he had from every player.

"I always felt the captain has to be worth his Test place, but he has to have that sort of respect from three other countries about the position he holds."

None of the players will know about their Lions selection until tour manager Andy Irvine reads out the names during a mid-morning press conference. Gatland will then announce and introduce his captain to the media.

Wales and Ireland are both expected to have double-figure representation, but England appear unlikely to improve on their nine-strong selection in South Africa four years ago and Scotland could end up with a maximum of just four players.

Talisman Ireland centre O'Driscoll, meanwhile, is poised to feature on his fourth successive tour after first gaining selection the last time the Lions visited Australia 12 years ago.

The Lions possible captains:

SAM WARBURTON (WALES)

Final odds: 4/9

Age: 24

Position: Flanker

Lions tours: None

The bookmakers' favourite to the extent they stopped taking bets on him nearly two weeks ago. Hugely respected Grand Slam-winning captain who led Wales to the World Cup semi-finals. Enjoys a strong relationship with Lions coach Warren Gatland but his appointment would be a gamble given his age and inexperience. Lacks the presence of O'Connell and the aura of O'Driscoll, but undoubtedly a class act.

 

BRIAN O'DRISCOLL (IRELAND)

Final odds: 3/1

Age: 34

Position: Centre

Lions tours: 2001, 2005 (as captain), 2009

Led the betting himself following a terrific display in Ireland's opening RBS 6 Nations match against Wales, but his form tailed off during the remainder of the championship. Not guaranteed a place in the Test team - of the trio only O'Connell holds that distinction - but his pedigree and ability to produce on the big stage mark him out as early favourite to fill the Test number 13 jersey. Likely to be the last professional rugby he plays.

 

PAUL O'CONNELL (IRELAND)

Final odds: 9/2

Age: 33

Position: Second row

Lions tours: 2005, 2009 (as captain)

Having spent most of the season recovering from a back injury that required surgery, the most recent Lions skipper is revitalised and in form. An epic display for Munster against Harlequins in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals earlier this month propelled O'Connell into contention and he was admired for his performance in the post in 2009. Probably the northern hemisphere's outstanding lock, offering a rallying point to his team-mates.

Online Editors