The Blues, Crusaders and Highlanders are likely to be near full strength for their matches against the British and Irish Lions next year.
In the wake of the criticism from some European clubs about the toughness of the Lions' schedule, which includes three tests, five matches against the New Zealand Super Rugby teams, a match against the New Zealand Maori, and one against the New Zealand Barbarians, All Blacks selector Grant Fox today confirmed the majority of the All Blacks would be available for their franchises in the early matches.
The Lions, who will probably be coached by Warren Gatland, open their tough tour with a match against the Barbarians in Whangarei on June 3, before playing the Blues, Crusaders and Highlanders in the space of seven days.
The first test will be played in Auckland on June 24, which means the Chiefs, who host the Lions on June 20, are unlikely to have their All Blacks available. The same applies for the Hurricanes, who play the Lions on June 27, between the second and third tests.
"The Super Rugby sides will be loaded up with All Blacks early because there's a bit of time from game one to the first test and they need to play and then as we get closer to the test some of those franchises will have less access to the All Blacks as we start preparing for it," Fox told the Herald today.
When asked about the arduous nature of the tour, put into sharp focus by the performance of a second-string Chiefs team, who thrashed Wales 40-7 in June, Fox said: "Any tour of New Zealand is going to be challenging because we've got real talent and depth here.
"It will be tough for them, but the difference is Wales were down to their mid-week team and you'd think a mid-week British and Irish Lions team would be stronger than Wales.
"But I wouldn't predict results based on that match against Wales, and I don't think there will be a mid-week Lions team as such. "I think Gats, if it is him, will mix things up to give everyone an opportunity to press for test selection. The last thing he'd want to do is flag early what his test team is, both for his own group and for us."
An indication of the challenge facing the Lions is the Blues' potential line-up at Eden Park on June 7. If fit, Charlie Faumuina, Patrick Tuipulotu, Akira Ioane, Jerome Kaino, Augustine Pulu, Sonny Bill Williams, Rene Ranger, George Moala and Rieko Ioane could be available for Tana Umaga's team.
Fox, speaking to the Herald on the day the online ballot for tickets opened, said the mystique of the Lions had only grown since he was playing for the All Blacks.
"It's a special team," he said. "After the '91 World Cup I was thinking about tossing it in and then a little break in the game re-kindled my enthusiasm and I got through. One of the things that kept me going into '93 was to play the Lions. A lot of players these days will play a couple of World Cups, maybe even three World Cups, but they will probably get to play the Lions once in their career."
Supporters can apply for tickets for the tests through the online ballot until November 1 as demand is likely to exceed supply. The ballot will be drawn in mid-November.
British and Irish Lions schedule
June 3: New Zealand Barbarians vs British and Irish Lions, Toll Stadium, Whangarei
June 7: Blues vs British and Irish Lions, Eden Park, Auckland
June 10: Crusaders vs British and Irish Lions, AMI Stadium, Christchurch
June 13: Highlanders vs British and Irish Lions, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
June 17: Māori All Blacks vs British and Irish Lions, Rotorua International Stadium, Rotorua
June 20: Chiefs vs British and Irish Lions, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
June 24: New Zealand vs British and Irish Lions, Eden Park, Auckland
June 27: Hurricanes vs British and Irish Lions, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
July 1: New Zealand vs British and Irish Lions, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
July 8: New Zealand vs British and Irish Lions, Eden Park, Auckland