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Gatland: Warburton still in frame for Lions
ESPN Staff
February 16, 2013
New Zealand do their best to bring down Wales captain Sam Warburton on the charge. Wales v New Zealand, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales, November 24, 2012
Sam Warburton is still on Warren Gatland's radar for the Lions tour © Getty Images
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British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland insists that Sam Warburton is still in contention to lead the elite tourists to Australia later this year despite being dropped from the Wales starting line-up.

Warburton has been omitted from the Wales side to face Italy next weekend in the Six Nations, with interim head coach Rob Howley opting to field the same XV that beat France 16-6 in Paris. The 24-year-old missed the French clash due to a shoulder injury but was available for selection for next Saturday's matchup in Rome.

Earlier in the week Gatland, who has stepped aside as Wales head coach this year to focus on the Lions, emphasised how important performances in the Six Nations were to Lions selection. However the New Zealander has made it clear that Warburton will not be overlooked because of his omission from the Wales side.

"Rob Howley was right to stick with the same team for the Italian game, and right to name it early to defuse a week's worth of focus on Sam not being picked," Gatland told the Western Mail. "But Sam will play many more times for Wales, and he'll captain Wales again. In terms of the Lions, of course he's still in contention. Nobody is ruled out."

"There's a long way to go before we select the Lions squad, we're only two matches into the Six Nations and we will also be looking at players' club form after the tournament. When you are picking a squad of 36 or 37 a lot of different factors come in to the equation, you have to think about combinations being right and having cover in certain positions. Sam isn't starting against Italy, but Rob put his faith in a winning side and I totally understand that."

Ospreys back row Justin Tipuric was drafted in to replace Warburton for the France match and has held onto the openside flanker position for the Italy game. While the competition between Warburton and Tipuric is causing a selection headache for Howley, Gatland believes the rivalry is a good thing for the Lions' selectors.

"I am just grateful that there is a really healthy rivalry between Sam and Justin Tipuric, one that should be celebrated rather than them being pitched head-to-head all the time. That position is so attritional, both are going to pick up injuries along the way and so both are going to play a lot of Test matches in their careers."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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