In partnership with the HKRFU
Injured skipper Warburton out of Lions opener
Paul O’Connell, the 2009 captain, will lead the team against the Barbarians in Hong Kong as coach Warren Gatland refuses to take any risks
Injured captain Sam Warburton was desperate to lead out the British & Irish Lions in their tour opener against the Barbarians tomorrow, but head coach Warren Gatland refused to take the risk and yesterday handed the honour to Paul O'Connell.
Warburton has been mothballed owing to concerns over a knee ligament injury and is not among the crop of 17 greenhorns included in the 23-man squad for the historic clash at Hong Kong Stadium.
"Sam has a sore knee and we felt that so early in the tour it just was not worth the risk playing him," said Gatland.
"It is a little bit of a knock. The medic gave him an injection; he was desperate to play. He could have done it taking a few anti-inflammatory pills, but the last thing we want to see is that he is okay for three or four weeks, and then come into test match week and he isn't available. This is just a precautionary measure."
Warburton has been given a steroid injection and told to rest his knee for five days, which could see him also miss the opening game in Australia next Wednesday against Super Rugby team Western Force in Perth.
His place at openside flanker will be taken by Justin Tipuric, who will make up an all-Wales backrow with Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau.
Gatland's first team comprise 11 Welshmen, five Irishmen counting skipper O'Connell, four Englishmen and all three Scottish tourists including the youngest player in the party, 20-year-old fullback Stuart Hogg.
The New Zealander said it was an "easy decision" to make, especially as most of the players involved in last weekend's English and Celtic Championship finals had been rested.
Picking O'Connell as captain had also been another easy choice for Gatland. The 33-year-old forward skippered the Lions on their last tour to South Africa in 2009, including the third-test victory over the Springboks.
Gatland said: "He has done a great job supporting Sam in the last few weeks. It was just a case of picking the best person for the job and an obvious decision to make in terms of his experience and leadership and the respect he has within the squad."
Gatland also named England flyhalf Owen Farrell to partner Mike Philips in the halves combination, with Ireland's Johnny Sexton on the bench.
Warburton is not the only player missing because of injury with Welsh prop Gethin Jenkins and Ireland fullback Rob Kearney also sidelined.
It has been an amazing few months for O'Connell, who played five times for the Lions in 2005 (New Zealand) and a further six occasions in 2009. An operation on his back on New Year's Eve ended with the giant forward ruling himself out of Lions' contention. But a remarkable recovery climaxing in Munster's Heineken Cup victory over Harlequins made a compelling case for inclusion.
"I'm absolutely delighted. Obviously it is disappointing for Sam who has run a great ship, and I'm sure he will be disappointed not to be able to lead the boys out on their first game," O'Connell said.
"Around Christmas and even two or three months after Christmas, I certainly thought I wouldn't be here. But to be here now and captaining the side is absolutely fantastic."
Apart from O'Connell, the other players in the squad who have appeared for the Lions are tighthead prop Adam Jones (Wales), scrumhalf Mike Phillips (Wales), inside centre Jamie Roberts (Wales), and replacements Alun Wyn Jones (Wales) and Jamie Heaslip (Ireland).
"Everyone will get a start in the first three games. We will look at combinations in this time. Selection for this side was fairly easy in terms of players who had been together for the last couple of weeks," Gatland said.
"The guys who go out on Saturday get the first opportunity to set down a marker and put some pressure on other players to emulate them. After the first four games we will start thinking about the test team. We are not going in with any preconceived ideas."