Rugby: New Zealand's Bundee Aki named for first British & Irish Lions tour, as Warren Gatland picks 37-man squad to tour South Africa

New Zealand's Bundee Aki has been named for his first British & Irish Lions tour, while Exeter's Sam Simmonds was the most eye-catching selection, as coach Warren Gatland chose the try-scoring No.8 ahead of Billy Vunipola for the tour of South Africa.

After a final four-hour selection meeting, Gatland has extended his squad by one to 37, but there's still no room for Ireland's injury-hit Johnny Sexton, with Owen Farrell, Dan Biggar and Finn Russell battling for the first-five shirt.

Other notable absentees are England trio Manu Tuilagi, Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler, as well as Wales' 2017 Man of the Series in New Zealand Jonathan Davies and Irish lock James Ryan. Courtney Lawes, who has not played since February with a pectoral injury, earned a spot with his ability to play lock and back row, as one of 11 Englishmen in the group.

Among the other relatively surprising selections are Ireland duo Aki and Andrew Porter, and centre Chris Harris of Scotland, who were rewarded for their best Six Nations display for years by the inclusion of eight players.

The Scots have not had a starting test Lion since prop Tom Smith in 2001.

Fresh from leading Wales to the Six Nations title, Alun Wyn Jones is captain, as he bids to add to his nine Lions test caps, as one of 10 Welshmen in the squad.

"In all my time in coaching, this is the most challenging squad I've ever been involved in picking," says Gatland, Lions head coach for the third time.

"You are looking at form in the Six Nations, players who have performed for you in the past, some who have performed well for their clubs and also at young players you think you can develop on the tour, so there are lots of factors.

"It is trying to get the balance. At the end of the day, selection is just a matter of opinion."

Knowing the physical challenge the Lions will face against the Springboks, who have not played a game since winning the World Cup final in 2019, Gatland added an extra loose forward to his initial group.

"Looking at the attrition in that area, it gives a bit of a back-up," he says.

As well as the forward power the Springboks showed in that World Cup final win over England, Gatland also has painful memories of the 2009 series loss, when the hosts - also world champions at the time - played their part in some of the most brutal tests of the modern era.

"In 2009, when we went there, we played pretty well in the lead-up games and then the physicality they brought to the first test was something we weren't quite ready for," he says.

"We made a few changes after halftime and some selection changes for the second test, and I think we restored some respect into that the jersey, but we were disappointed, as we felt we could have won or drawn that series."

With the dates still to be finalised, this year's series will be played in empty stadiums - or certainly with no overseas fans - a far cry from the amazing noise and atmosphere usually generated by tens of thousands of travelling supporters. 

"You can't imagine a Lions tour without the fans, but we have to do that," says Gatland. "Our job is to put on a performance for everybody we know will be supporting us from afar." 

Backs: Josh Adams (Wales), Bundee Aki (Ireland), Dan Biggar (Wales), Elliot Daly (England), Gareth Davies (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Chris Harris (Scotland), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Conor Murray (Ireland) Ali Price (Scotland), Louis Rees-Zammit (Wales), Finn Russell (Scotland), Duhan Van Der Merwe (Scotland), Anthony Watson (England), Liam Williams (Wales) 

Forwards: Tadhg Beirne (Ireland), Jack Conan (Ireland) Luke Cowan-Dickie (England), Tom Curry (England), Zander Fagerson (Scotland) Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland) Jamie George (England), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Jonny Hill (England), Maro Itoje (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Wyn Jones (Wales), Courtney Lawes (England), Ken Owens (Wales), Andrew Porter (Ireland), Sam Simmonds (England), Rory Sutherland (Scotland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Mako Vunipola (England) Hamish Watson (Scotland)