There can no longer be any reasonable argument to the contrary: the revival of rugby league’s Great Britain team has been a comprehensive failure.
Tonight in Christchurch, an injury-affected and spluttering Lions remained winless on tour in the South Pacific, dropping their second Test against New Zealand after a first-up defeat to Tonga.
But as damning as the results have been, it has been the complete lack of pretence that these are anything other than Englishmen in Lions’ clothing that has made the exercise seem pointless in every sense but as a merchandising exercise.
The Great Britain coaching staff has openly admitted to using the team as a pathway to England winning the 2021 World Cup, with Wayne Bennett saying he was using the tour to develop the halves depth of one of the four Home Nations his team is supposed to be representing.
On match eve he said “the main reason” a player had been called up was that he was in England’s Nines squad, and so he had played with many other members of this squad who are all – with one exception – eligible for England.
For Bennett, what must be doubly upsetting in the context of this disarming honesty is that the tour won’t have done much to help England – who beat the Kiwis in a Test series 12 months ago – anyway. If this really is just England in nice shirts, they’ve gone backwards.
Two of their somewhat controversially Australian-born players were in the starting squad. Scrum-half Jackson Hastings, the Super League Man of Steel, struggled to capture anything like his form with Salford and an early contender for that award, Warrington stand-off Blake Austin, played as a makeshift winger.
Although the Kiwis suspected Austin would not play fullback, that’s where he started the game and that’s where he was when he fumbled a kick in the fourth minute. A penalty from the ensuing scrum win enabled Jamayne Isaako to edge the Kiwis ahead 2-0.
The ledger was soon squared by a Gareth Widdop penalty goal and Austin’s shaky start to his 80-minute career as a winger continued when he was dragged into touch in his own corner.
Two minutes later, Herculean New Zealand centre Joey Manu managed to hold Austin and Hastings at bay as he planted the ball over the line for the first try of the match.
Winger Isaako missed with that conversion attempt but with Australian referee Gerard Sutton keen to avoid a repeat of the previous week’s snorefest between these sides, there were many more penalties in kicking distance during the first half. Brisbane’s Isaako landed two more, in the 26th and 29th minutes.
The Kiwis continued to target Austin, who did run the ball strongly when he had an opportunity, and the Warrington import was almost snookered by an awkwardly bouncing ball at the half-hour mark.
After GB fullback Jonny Lomax was pinned in his in-goal in the 33rd minute, England’s 2013 World Cup nemesis Shaun Johnson struck again. His dazzling step caught Elliott Whitehead flat-footed and left the Lions appealing for the video referee to be called into play. He was, but it made no difference to the result – the try was given, Isaac coverted and the Kiwis led 16-2 at half-time.
The visitors’ fortunes nosedived more steeply six minutes into the second half when New Zealand winger Ken Maumalo performed one of his trademark flying put-downs. Maumalo’s entire body, aside from his right forearm, was out of bounds but his right forearm was all he needed to tick the scoreboard over to 20-2.
When Britain’s first try came, it was a strange one. The crowd had already started cheering the home side’s resolute defence on the final tackle, British replacement Josh Jones held by three defenders two metres from the line.
But the latest of off-loads was forthcoming and hooker Josh Hodgson flopped over the try line to Jones’ right, scarcely believing his luck. Widdop’s conversion narrowed the margin in a game the Kiwis had dominated to 12.
More to follow…