WARREN Gatland says Cory Hill deserves the accolade of being Wales captain – but says the Dragons lock needs to continue his rapid rise to hold onto a starting spot.

The 26-year-old has been named co-captain with Cardiff Blues flanker Ellis Jenkins for the summer tour that features a Test with South Africa in America then a double-header in Argentina.

If it is Hill that gets the nod to lead the side out against the Springboks on June 2 then he will become the 135th man to skipper Wales and the first from the Dragons since Michael Owen against France in the 2006 Six Nations.

Being co-captain is another achievement for the Dragons skipper, who has been hailed by Gatland as Wales' "most-improved player" since earning a first chance because of injuries in the autumn of 2016.

Hill has won 15 caps, was Jamie Roberts' vice-captain last summer and has featured in every international in 2017/18, establishing himself as Alun Wyn Jones' partner in the boilerhouse.

"I've been pleasantly surprised by him," said Gatland, who briefly called Hill into his Lions squad last summer to provide injury cover.

"We knew when he came into the squad that physically there had to be an improvement; he's a good ball carrier but we had to put some weight on him.

"He's done that, ideally you'd like another 2 or 3kgs on him to be able to compete at that level but he has definitely been one of the most improved players in the squad.

"There wasn't a massive amount of expectation from us but it's been pleasing to see a player like that develop.

"He has come on and deserves this opportunity because he has been an important part of the squad over the last year or so."

However, Gatland has warned the Dragons skipper that competition is fierce in the second row as Wales prepare for next year's World Cup.

"With Alun Wyn Jones and Jake Ball to come back, Luke Charteris now back in the fold, Bradley Davies, Seb Davies, Adam Beard, it's a pretty competitive position," said the head coach.

"Cory knows that he is going to have to continue to improve. He gets a great chance to keep working and developing because he is outstanding in the role of lineout caller, is a fantastic professional and deserves the accolade that has been given to him and the chance to see how he handles the next challenge."

Usual captain Alun Wyn Jones is rested for the summer tour along with fellow Lion Taulupe Faletau, who led the side against Italy in the Six Nations.

Past skippers Sam Warburton and Dan Lydiate are injured, Roberts is not selected while Bradley Davies and Scott Williams are 'normal' members of the tour party.

"Co-captains is something that I've never done before and we thought it was a good opportunity, particularly so that they can support each other rather than all the responsibility being on one person," said Gatland.

"It's a big role to take given the relative inexperience of the squad, so the two of them supporting each other and getting the support from other key players that have been around for a while will be good."