Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Warburton tipped for captain's role

Sam Warburton could become Wales' youngest Lions tour captain

Sam Warburton is set to be unveiled as British and Irish Lions captain on Tuesday - 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.

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 along with 2003 World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson, who delivered a fly-half masterclass for Toulon at Twickenham on Sunday, and young red rose lock Joe Launchbury.

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

Other areas for discussion included the 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.

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.

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