Sam Warburton, the Wales loose forward who led his country during three tests in New Zealand last year, has been named as captain of the British and Irish Lions.

Warburton was also skipper of the Lions during the team's last tour in Australia four years ago, a 2-1 series win under Kiwi coach Warren Gatland.

Gatland said: "Sam is a great player, an outstanding leader and a winning Lions captain. We believe that Sam's experience and leadership qualities make him an obvious choice as captain. He has earned the respect of his peers and coaches through his resilience, tenacity and hard work."

On the eve of the announcement Warburton attended a private dinner with all the living Lions captains and said following his announcement: "Being in the same room as so many Lions legends was an amazing experience. I feel humbled and extremely proud to be given the opportunity to captain the Lions for a second Tour and look forward to playing the world champions on their own turf with the best players of the UK and Ireland at my side."

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Held amid much fanfair in west London tonight, the announcement of Warburton as skipper wasn't a complete surprise.

At 8.36pm, nearly two-and-a-half hours before the 11pm unveiling of the squad, World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper tweeted: "Many congratulations to @samwarburton_ on becoming only the second player, after Martin Johnson, to captain two @lionsofficial tours".

Gosper might have been prompted to act early after viewing a picture of Warburton taken from a recent photo shoot and circulated on Twitter which suggested that he would be given the role.

The Lions management won't be happy with that leak, nor are they likely to be happy with Gosper's pre-empting of the announcement, well-intentioned though it may have been. It was, nevertheless, described by the British press as a "gaffe".

Flanker Warburton, 28, stepped down from the Wales captaincy ahead of this season's Six Nations Championship. Lock and fellow Lion Alun Wyn Jones took over from him.

But while Warburton's role wasn't a surprise, there was probably a pleasant one for Northland midfielder Jared Payne, the man who now plays for Ireland and was named in Gatland's squad of 37 with the possibility of playing on his former home pitch of Toll Stadium in Whangarei in the tourists' first match against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians on June 3.

Auckland-born Ben Te'o, also a midfielder and a former league player, has also been included, but there was no place for fiery hooker Dylan Hartley, of England, or Wales midfielder Jamie Roberts.

Gatland described the tour as "the toughest", saying there were no easy games. The Lions play three tests, a match against the New Zealand Maori and all five New Zealand Super Rugby sides.

He said there had been some "lively" selection debates, but that he was happy with the squad.

"We think it's a stronger squad [than that which toured Australia]. As a coaching team we're very excited with talent we've been able to name."

The emphasis has gone on selecting tough, experienced men who will be able to handle the rigours of what is likely to be the toughest tour the Lions have undertaken.

The squad consists of 22 forwards and 19 backs, with Maro Itoje the youngest player at the age of 22.

Lions squad to tour New Zealand
Backs: Dan Biggar, Elliot Daly, Jonathan Davies, Owen Farrell, Leigh Halfpenny, Robbie Henshaw, Stuart Hogg, Jonathan Joseph, Conor Murray, George North, Jack Nowell, Jared Payne, Jonathan Sexton, Tommy Seymour, Ben Te'o, Anthony Watson, Rhys Webb, Liam Williams, Ben Youngs.

Forwards: Rory Best, Dan Cole, Taulupe Faletau, Tadhg Furlong, Jamie George, Iain Henderson, Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes, Joe Marler, Jack McGrath, Ross Moriarty, Sean O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony, Ken Owens, Kyle Sinckler, CJ Stander, Justin Tipuric, Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola, Sam Warburton (captain).