Rugby league comment: Toothless Lions need new approach

It was a long-time coming and eagerly anticipated, but there’ll be a sense of relief when Great Britain Lions’ four-game southern hemisphere tour ends this weekend - and not just because fans in the UK will get a lie in on Saturday mornings.

Monday, 11th November 2019, 5:00 pm
Wayne Bennett. Picture by Jeremy Ward

The tour has been dismal viewing: three defeats with just one try scored in each and a meagre total of only 22 points. Though victory over Papua New Guinea in four days’ time would salvage something from what has been a disastrous few weeks, it would also paper over considerable cracks.

The Lions have barely whimpered, never mind roared, in losses to a Tonga Invitational XIII and twice against New Zealand and worse than those results has been the manner of them. Great Britain haven’t just been poor, but also dull to watch.

On the evidence of the month, Great Britain are the fifth-best team in the world, behind Australia, Tonga, New Zealand...and England. The squad may not have changed much, but coach Wayne Bennett has admitted they have gone backwards since the narrow 2017 World Cup final loss to Australia and last year’s Test series win over New Zealand.

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Regan Grace. Picture by Marttin Rickett PA

Taking only two wingers and one specialist centre, but six out-and-out half-backs was bizarre, throughout the tour players have been fielded out of position and the squad seems to have been picked on reputation rather than form. Why, for instance, has Man of Steel nominated prop Liam Watts been left at home?

When lone centre, Oliver Gildart and one of the two wingers, Ryan Hall, were injured in the second game of the tour, Zak Hardaker, a full-back who had been playing in the centres, was initially selected to switch to the left-flank. He then damaged a shoulder in training so stand-off Blake Austin stepped in for last Saturday’s rematch with the Kiwis. Austin’s a terrific player and overall he had a good game, but he is not a winger.

Ash Handley, who scored 22 tries in a struggling Leeds Rhinos side this year, has been belatedly called into the squad, but the fact Bennett has twice referred to him as “Josh” when talking to the media is hardly a vote of confidence.

St Helens’ Regan Grace would have been a popular choice, but he is Welsh and won’t be playing for England at the World Cup in two years’ time, which appears to have counted against him.

Daryl Powell

Unfortunately, Bennett doesn’t seem to have drawn a line between England and Great Britain. For example, discussing Jackson Hastings’ prospects at scrum-half before the first clash with the Kiwis, Bennett said: “We’ve suffered at half-back for the last 12-18 months, since Luke Gale got injured. We’ve got to find one in the next 12 months or so before the World Cup so he has got an opportunity there.”

That tells its own story. Aside from Bennett, while the England rugby league teams have a dedicated Twitter account, updates on the Lions have been provided through the Rugby Football League’s feed. There are bigger concerns, but that’s another indication of the Lions being treated as second-best.

Great Britain Lions are a prestigious brand and not simply an opportunity to experiment ahead of England’s next series. They deserve their own coach and that is the way the Rugby Football League must go in future.

As for Bennett, whose contract expires after this weekend, he guided England to a narrow defeat by Australia in the 2017 World Cup final and victory over the Kiwis in a Test series a year ago, but has never looked comfortable.

Liam Watts. Picture by Tony Johnson

Bennett is well regarded among players and staff and there’s no doubting his credentials as one of coaching’s all-time greats, but supporters want to see an England team with a more obviously passionate leader, who promotes thrilling rugby.

Daryl Powell fits the bill and, though Wigan weren’t always the best team to watch during his time there, Shaun Wane would also be someone capable of taking England forward.