What was supposed to be a bright new dawn ended up being a farcical disaster. The return of the Great Britain Rugby League Lions after a 12-year hiatus resulted in a four-game tour of the southern hemisphere which garnered zero wins and four defeats.
It was one thing to lose to a resurgent Tonga, but back-to-back losses to New Zealand and then the humiliating nadir of a spanking by Papua New Guinea ensured the Lions headed back home with their tails between their legs.
Many rugby league fans are calling for the entire Lions concept to be scrapped, but what should be the next step for Great Britain? Is now the time for the Rugby Football League to bury the brand forever, or is there still a future for the Lions?
There are cases for and against...
Let’s put the Lions back in the wardrobe
By John Davidson - Rugby League Expert
Farce, failure, embarrassment. Those are the words being thrown about after Great Britain ended its tour from hell down under with a shock 28-10 loss to Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby.
Four games, four defeats. Brought back after a 12-year hiatus, rugby league’s Lions have been disappointing from start to finish.
But it is not just on the field that Great Britain have failed to fire. The whole concept – from the scheduling, the opposition, the team selection, the tactics, the marketing as well as the performances and results – have been poor.
Add it all up and you have to conclude that the Lions should be condemned to the history bin. Thanks for the memories and all that, but it’s time to move on.
From the start, the Rugby Football League got it wrong with who Great Britain were playing. There was no match against Australia, the world champions, so they had to put together an odd line-up. Tests against Fiji and Samoa weren’t able to be arranged, so it ended up a lop-sided schedule with a game against Tonga, two against New Zealand, and one against the Kumuls.
The decision to play the Tests at the same as the Rugby Union World Cup in Japan, in rugby-union mad New Zealand, was another boneheaded decision. Great Britain’s opener clashed directly with the kick-off time of England against the All Blacks. Then, the Lions’ first game against the Kiwis, part of a three-game triple-header at Eden Park, clashed with the World Cup final.
This should have been avoided.
England coach Wayne Bennett was clearly the wrong man to take charge of Great Britain. While Bennett is a lover of the international game, as an Australian he kept mistakenly referring to the team as ‘England’. This further alienated supporters.
Bennett also bungled his selection by taking only one specialist centre and seven halfbacks in George Williams, Blake Austin, Jackson Hastings, Gareth Widdop, Jake Trueman, Jonny Lomax and Jake Connor in a 24-man squad. This meant there was no balance to his squad and when injuries bit, and they bit hard at times, he was forced to play many players out of their natural positions.
Bennett also picked several players who were out of form and Great Britain’s lack of depth was badly exposed on this tour.
UK rugby league simply does not have the player pool or the reach across Wales, Ireland and Scotland, like rugby union does, to put out a proper representative side. And the players who do come from those areas, like Welshman Regan Grace, were bizarrely overlooked.
It was essentially England in all but name, and flopped badly.
Great Britain has had some great moments in the past – like winning the first World Cup in 1954, and then claiming it again in 1960 and 1972 – but those days are gone.
The home nations should play as themselves going forward and the Lions left in the past.
The Lions are the result of the problems, not the cause
By Kris Voakes - The Sportsman's Features Editor
There is no dressing up the Lions tour as anything but a shambles. How many thousands of rugby league fans have travelled across to New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, or scraped themselves out of bed back home at ungodly hours, only to be left disappointed by the fare on show from Great Britain’s supposed best?
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. The Great Britain brand is one which thrived for so many decades, and in traditional rugby league circles the lure of the Lions far outweighs that of the composite nations. Do we really want to bury the legacies of the likes of Ellery Hanley, Clive Sullivan, Henderson Gill and Mike Gregory just because one hastily-arranged tour has been such a failure?
Wayne Bennett got things badly wrong in terms of squad selection, and his focus was clearly on building his England charges towards the Rugby League World Cup in 2021. But all that does is show that there needs to be a rethink on who gets to coach GB in the future, and when the tours should take place.
Of course the England coach is going to have the World Cup in mind with just two years - and probably as few as five games - to go until the pinnacle tournament of the international calendar, and the one by which his legacy will truly be judged. So give the job to somebody else.
And surely Great Britain ought to be touring in the autumn following each World Cup, at a time when they might be more likely to interest the Australian Kangaroos and during a year in which England’s rugby union side are not having a tilt at their own brand of World Cup glory.
How worthwhile was it really to have England play New Zealand four times in 2018 when instead there could have been a Great Britain trip which might have had a greater chance of success? The losses of Sean O'Loughlin and Sam Burgess to the international game didn't help matters in 2019 either.
The RFL and Super League authorities continue to sell the game short. So many seasons end with no international calendar drawn up for the following 12 months, and short-term decisions made regarding the structure of the domestic game. It is not only the Great Britain brand which is being failed at boardroom level, rather this tour has been a great example of where the game is going wrong in so many different areas.
So let’s not get shot of the Lions on the strength of one terribly-organised tour. It is the decision-making which has let down the Great Britain concept, not the other way around.