Australia give Lions tour assurances

The British and Irish Lions have received assurances they will not be facing weakened provincial teams in the early matches of next year's tour of Australia.

Three years ago, the Lions were disappointed that South Africa withdrew their international stars from the tour matches, to keep them fresh for the Test series.

But the Australian Rugby Union have committed to fielding their strongest possible provincial teams, at least until the NSW Waratahs game a week before for the first Test.

"We were disappointed in South Africa that we didn't get the calibre of teams that we thought we were going to encounter," said Lions chief executive John Feehan.

"It is also fair to say that the tougher the teams are the better the preparation for the Test games.

"We have got a commitment from the ARU to put their best teams out. They want to play their internationals through the provincial games, perhaps up to a week before the first Test, and they have a commitment.

"It is not just to do with rugby but how they sell rugby union in Australia. They see the provincial games as a way of bringing rugby back to the general public in Australia.

"It is a very competitive sports market there with rugby league and Australian rules. For that reason they will not only price the games appropriately they also want to play their best players.

"They see it as in their interests. They are not doing it because they like us, necessarily."