Lions announce Australia tour

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The Independent Online

The British Lions are likely to take a 37-man squad on next year's tour of Australia.

The British Lions are likely to take a 37-man squad on next year's tour of Australia.

And the selection process will get underway during this season's early Heineken Cup group games and a busy round of autumn Tests featuring all four home nations.

Lions manager Donal Lenihan and coach Graham Henry intend announcing the squad - and captain - next April, around two months before departing Down Under.

Details of the 10-match, six-week trip - the shortest in Lions history - were unveiled today.

The Test series starts at The Gabba in Brisbane on June 30, followed by further games a week later in Melbourne and then Sydney's Stadium Australia (July 14).

Apart from the world champion Wallabies, other matches include appointments with all three Australian Super 12 sides - Queensland Reds, New South Wales Waratahs and ACT Brumbies.

The tour kicks off in Perth on June 9 against traditional first-up opponents Western Australia, a week after Henry, his players and management team leave Britain.

Their remaining fixtures are against a Queensland President's XV, Australia A and New South Wales Country.

No midweek game has been arranged for the tour's final week, giving Henry and company unhindered preparation for a potential Test series decider.

"It took a while to get it right, but I think that everyone is happy with the final itinerary," said Lenihan.

"We have achieved the correct balance, and the first two games against Western Australia and a Queensland President's XV will give us a chance to play everyone in the party."

There are six fixtures before the first Test, including a tough week that sees appointments with Queensland Reds, Australia A and the Waratahs.

Lenihan hopes to fill remaining management team vacancies by the end of October, with all efforts then concentrated on selection.

"Planning plays a huge role in the success of any tour," he added.

"We've already had a very good three days in Cork when Graham, Andy Robinson (assistant coach) and myself met, and Graham has been up to Scotland where he chatted with Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer."

There are currently no plans to announce a preliminary Lions squad of 60 players, which would then be reduced, but New Zealander Henry has already identified several individuals with outstanding claims for tour places.

And he won't just be looking at current internationals.

"There may be one or two playing in the Heineken Cup, who don't get selected by their national sides, but who we feel are in contention for the Lions," said Wales coach Henry.

"Of course, my major objective during the Heineken Cup will be with the Welsh clubs and Welsh players, but in watching them, I will also see a lot of other players in the Lions' running."

It will be a proud record that Henry's squad look to maintain, as the Lions have won all four previous Test series in Australia - 1950, 1959, 1966 and 1989.

But the Wallabies, despite seeing world stars like Tim Horan, Jason Little and David Wilson quit international rugby to pursue English Premiership careers, will present an immense challenge.

After winning the World Cup last autumn, they were subsequently crowned Tri-Nations champions and retained the Bledisloe Cup following two titanic battles with arch-rivals New Zealand.

England forwards Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio, together with Ireland skipper Keith Wood, are front-running Lions captaincy candidates.

Current England captain Johnson led the Lions to a 2-1 series triumph in South Africa three years ago, but former England leader Dallaglio is favoured by many players and pundits.

If Dallaglio secures British rugby's most coveted role, then he would set off for Australia just two years after resigning the England captaincy.

2001 British Lions itinerary: June 2 - Lions depart; 9 - Western Australia (Subiaco Stadium, Perth); June 12 - Queensland President's XV (venue to be confirmed); June 16 - Queensland Reds (Brisbane, stadium to be confirmed); June 19 - Australia A (North Power Stadium, Gosford); June 23 - New South Wales Waratahs (Sydney Football Stadium); June 26 - New South Wales Country (Coffs Harbour International Stadium); June 30 - Australia (first Test, Brisbane, The Gabba); July 3 - ACT Brumbies (Bruce Stadium, Canberra); July 7 - Australia (second Test, Melbourne, stadium to be confirmed); July 14 - Australia (third Test, Stadium Australia, Sydney).