Rugby: Wilkinson out, Maitland in for Lions

Sam Warburton accepted the biggest honor in northern hemisphere rugby when he was appointed captain of the British and Irish Lions but there was no place for Jonny Wilkinson on Tuesday after the England great rejected the chance to tour Australia.

One of 15 Welshman called up by coach Warren Gatland, the 24-year-old Warburton will lead a 37-man party brimming with power as the Lions seek a first series win since 1997.

However, there were some major omissions, with England captain Chris Robshaw and Ireland hooker Rory Best overlooked and the in-form Wilkinson turning down an opportunity to revive an illustrious international career he brought to an end in December 2011.

"I asked Jonny if he could tour and he said he wasn't available," said Gatland, who phoned Wilkinson on Monday after being impressed by the first-five's recent form for Toulon. "I wouldn't have made the phone call if it wasn't to offer him a place on the tour.

"He appreciated the call, but he said he's struggling with his body and managing himself week to week. I think physically he would struggle to do a tour."

Gatland caused a stir by bringing former England prop Matt Stevens out of international retirement, while relative test novices Sean Maitland and Mako Vunipola - from New Zealand and Tonga, respectively - were also called up.

There are 10 Englishmen in total, nine Irishmen - including former Lions captains Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell - and three Scots, but Gatland has leaned heavily on players he knows well from his role as coach of Six Nations champion Wales.

Warburton relinquished the Wales captaincy during the recent Six Nations because of a mixture of injury and lack of form but was given the armband by Gatland, who sees the flanker as a guaranteed starter in the three-test series beginning in Brisbane on June 22.

"Warren told me a week ago on Sunday - it's the hardest secret I've ever had to keep," said the first Welsh captain of the Lions since 1977. "It's unbelievable, an accolade few people are able to achieve."

Wales flanker Dan Lydiate and Ireland wing Tommy Bowe were included despite only recently returning from long-term leg injuries.

Stevens, a Lion in 2005 to New Zealand, is the biggest surprise. After completing a two-year ban for drug use, Stevens retired from tests last year but has continued to play for Saracens in England's top division. He is one of six props in Gatland's squad and the only non-international.

Maitland made his test debut for Scotland only in this year's Six Nations but has already impressed with his searing pace and tryscoring ability, and could yet come up against his cousin - Australia first-five Quade Cooper.

"We could talk about a rivalry that started at the age of 5, when he beat me in a long-distance race," Maitland said. "He's had the wood over me in a few recent battles so hopefully we can get one over him."

Like everyone apart from Warburton, Maitland found out he was included as he watched the names read out live on television. He was with his teammates in Glasgow's locker room.

Vunipola is also inexperienced, having played the first of his nine games for England in November. He is the cousin of Wales No. 8 Toby Faletau, another first-time Lion, while England siblings Tom and Ben Youngs are the 14th pair of brothers to become Lions.

Gatland said he named just two flyhalves, Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell, because he wants them in form with four or five games under their belt before the first test. Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg will be the backup No. 10.

Wilkinson - test rugby's second-highest point-scorer and the Lions' leading point-scorer - was open to being on the standby list, Gatland added, but not committed to it. He could be involved in the Top 14 final in the French league on June 1, the day of the Lions' tour-opening match against the Barbarians in Hong Kong.

"Potentially, if there is an injury later in the tour, he said we can have that conversation later if it does pop up," Gatland said. "Maybe he might be available but potentially he's not available later in the tour."

The full squad is: Fullbacks; Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Robert Kearney (Ireland). Wings: Tommy Bowe (Ireland), Alex Cuthbert (Wales), Sean Maitland (Scotland), George North (Wales). Centres: Jonathan Davies (Wales), Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Wales), Manu Tuilagi (England), Five-eighths: Owen Farrell (England), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland). Halfbacks: Conor Murray (Ireland), Mike Phillips (Wales), Ben Youngs (England). No 8s: Toby Faletau (Wales), Jamie Heaslip (Ireland). Flankers: Tom Croft (England), Dan Lydiate (Wales), Sean O'Brien (Ireland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Sam Warburton (Wales). Locks: Ian Evans (Wales), Richie Gray (Scotland), Alun-Wyn Jones (Wales), Paul O'Connell (Ireland), Geoff Parling (England). Props: Dan Cole (England), Cian Healy (Ireland), Gethin Jenkins (Wales), Adam Jones (Wales), Matt Stevens (England), Mako Vunipola (England). Hookers: Dylan Hartley (England), Richard Hibbard (Wales), Tom Youngs (England).

- AP

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