Lions boss Warren Gatland snubbed a host of rugby’s biggest stars on what he described as the toughest selection day of his life.

Johnny Sexton, Manu Tuilagi, Jonathan Davies, Jack Nowell and Billy Vunipola were left out of the 37-man British and Irish squad to tour South Africa.

World Cup finalists Kyle Sinckler, Henry Slade, Jonny May, Sam Underhill and George Ford were also omitted.

Their places on the eight-match tour went instead to the lesser-known likes of Bundee Aki, Chris Harris, Ali Price and Zander Fagerson.

Gatland said: ”In all my time in coaching this is the most challenging squad I've had to pick.”

Pundits in South Africa quickly predicted a 3-0 series sweep for the world champion Springboks, just as they did before Martin Johnson’s Lions beat them in 1997.

Eddie Jones had wanted 20 England representatives but only 11 made the cut. Of those Elliot Daly was picked as a centre rather than at fullback where Jones failed to get anything like the best out of him.

And Sam Simmonds earned his call despite Jones having stubbornly refused to pick him since 2018.

Gatland said bluntly: “Some of the England players didn’t have what they would consider their best Six Nations.

Lions head coach Warren Gatland
Lions head coach Warren Gatland

“Billy (Vunipola) at the moment is probably not quite there. I didn’t see from him in the Six Nations the sort of impact he has had in the past, getting across the gainline, busting tackles.”

Sinckler took to social media to admit to being "honestly gutted" to be overlooked, but added: "Not a time to feel sorry for myself and blame others. Let's get behind the squad, wishing the boys all the best."

Gatland said he had built a squad to counter the physical brutality expected from the Boks on home turf.

Sinckler in Lions action on 2017 tour of New Zealand
Sinckler in Lions action on 2017 tour of New Zealand

“South Africa have gone back to their DNA,” he said. “We know what their mentality is. It’s about being physical and winning that physical battle.”

The Lions will prepare for it in Jersey where yesterday the British government dispatched gun boats in response to a post-Brexit fishing feud with France.

“I’m only concentrating on the rugby side, not the gunboats,” said Gatland. “We’ve just got to make sure that if we do go fishing we don’t go out too far!”