O'Connell is pride of Lions as big names miss plane

Irishman to lead tour of South Africa as Borthwick, Blair and Jones are left out
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To no one's great surprise, the Irishman Paul O'Connell was confirmed as Lions captain yesterday but there were shocks elsewhere as the 37-man squad to tour South Africa in the summer was announced. The inclusion of the 21-year-old Ireland back Keith Earls, who has just one international start to his name, will raise plenty of eyebrows, but it is the decision not to take the England flanker Tom Croft that may cause most concern. Three Six Nations' captains – England's Steve Borthwick, Scotland's Mike Blair and Wales' Ryan Jones – have also not been picked.

Just eight Englishman will make the trip. The surprise omission of Croft and Delon Armitage, as well as the head coach Ian McGeechan's decision to overlook Borthwick, means England have their smallest representation since 1977.

Ireland, in contrast, will supply 14 of the Lions' number while O'Connell will be the 10th Irishman to lead the tourists. He said: "The tour to South Africa represents a huge challenge for the touring party as we will be playing against the world champions. However, I'm confident we have the talent and attitude to represent the famous shirt to the best of our ability and to be successful."

McGeechan said that whittling the squad down to 37 had been a lengthy and difficult process. "To get where we are today and the announcement of the 37 players who will travel to South Africa has taken a lot of thought and work," he said. "Over the last six months the Lions coaching staff has attended countless matches, analysed endless games and taken the counsel of national and domestic coaches.

"Naturally there were some tough decisions and there will be disappointed players but I am confident that this is a very strong and capable squad. Its composition reflects the form shown in the Six Nations and domestic rugby and has a balanced blend of experience and youth."

Harry Ellis, one of three scrum-halves in the squad, backed his Leicester team-mate Croft to bounce back from his failure to make the cut. Ellis is Leicester's only representative in the squad.

Croft was omitted despite being widely tipped by many pundits for a place on the plane. The 23-year-old's form, fitness and athleticism had marked him out as a potential top performer in the loose on the hard grounds of South Africa.

Ellis said: "I'm sure Tom will be very disappointed because he's been playing extremely well all season. However, he's still very young and I'm sure he will be in contention for the next couple of Lions tours. He will bounce back from this. He's very mature, very professional, and I'm sure his time will come for the Lions in the future."

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