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Opinion

Why rugby league has got the Great Britain Lions all wrong

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Expert
28th October, 2019
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What, exactly, is Great Britain and do the people inside of this resurrected institution have a unified idea of what it represents?

No, I’m not talking about the political entity of Great Britain and I won’t be boring you with Brexit and the Irish Backstop. I’m referring to the rugby league team that came out of 12 years in mothballs on Saturday night, losing 14-6 in a Hamilton international I was honoured to witness in person.

I have my own concept of what Great Britain is. Captain James Graham has his, coach Wayne Bennett has his and players like Lachlan Coote have theirs. Fans clearly have their own given the outcry over Australian-born players in the side.

I walked out of FMG Waikato Stadium a little confused as to what the people inside the organisation think Great Britain is. When I recount some of the comments that led me to this confusion, I’m not criticising those who uttered them.

But when there is a disconnect between those on the inside, those trying to communicate to the outside and those looking in, you get something that is unlikely to realise its potential.

It was quite clear from Bennett’s comments at the post-match media conference that he saw coaching Great Britain as an extension of what he is doing with England, part of the link between the 2017 World Cup and the 2021 tournament.

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When I asked him what success meant on such an unusual tour – no three-match series, no midweek tour matches – he had this to say: “Success to me at the moment is – I’ve been driving it since I’ve been with them – is playing disciplined, always turning up and doing your best.

“We’ve got to get back to that.

“I noticed in the Nines last week: there were a couple of things we did in one of the games under pressure and I didn’t like that.

“Tonight we came out under pressure again and … I thought we got that out of our game last year and the year before.”

This should raise a few eyebrows. How can a team that hasn’t played in 12 years get “back” to anything? Didn’t England play in the Nines, not Great Britain? “Since I’ve been with them” … like, a week?

And, importantly, doesn’t this team represent three countries he will be trying to beat the year after next? Why is he instilling good discipline in his opposition?

This is not to have a go at Bennett. He’s a coach, nor marketer or spin doctor. His view of things is the one reflected by reality, not mine.

These are the same players he deals with in the England camp, plus three Aussies. One Welshman pulled out injured, one strong candidate missed out and the sole Irish representative played more recently for England Knights than the Wolfhounds.

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Coote, while disappointed to lose, described the game as “a good little hit-out” because “Great Britain and the England team haven’t played together for more than 12 months now.”. Again, as a Scotland representative, he acknowledged England and GB were pretty much the same thing.

It is up to those outside the playing and coaching group to correct these perceptions, in my mind. It’s up to those with their minds on history and legacy to lead.

Playing for Great Britain is not building up to anything. It is an end, not a means. Losses cannot be compensated for by England winning a World Cup. The losses can only be atoned for next time this entity plays, which presumably will be in four years.

Officialdom probably didn’t do enough to underscore the distinction between Great Britain and England in this new era where they exist concurrently. When it was one or the other, there was no need to draw this line.

What is that distinction?

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I put it this way: England is the prime minister and Great Britain is the Queen. The Lions are a ceremonial and ambassadorial entity, representing the grand old traditions of rugby league stretching back to 1895.

They are like a royal visiting the colonies, sitting above the crassness of humdrum everyday life. These are colours hundreds of thousands grew up on. They’re a running, passing, kicking cultural artefact.

They exist to evoke – and even recreate – the past.

To achieve this, decisions need to be made in the interests of making them unique before decisions are made in the interests of making them successful.

The three Aussies could be argued to actually tick this box in the modern age. Because Great Britain isn’t a ranked nation, the three of them can play without damaging their eligibility for Australia. It gives the whole thing a Barbarians feel.

Secondly, if the likes of USA or Tonga or whoever can “carry” domestic players in their squads for the greater good of the game, then GB should include a minimum quota of Scotsmen, Welshmen and Irishmen in their party.

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Yes, even if it costs them on the field. Because GB is an ideal as much as it is a team.

I seem to be contradicting myself here: on one hand, losses should not be brushed off so easily but, on the other, players should be picked who might lose the Lions a game. Barbarians rugby union sides are not picked strictly on merit, yet when they cross the sideline they want to win and uphold a legacy.

The Great Britain Lions are supposed to be a rugby league history roadshow. How can it be that they have fewer home nations players now than back in the days when there was hardly any rugby league played outside England and Wales?

Other countries bite the bullet and include domestic players to create pathways. Great Britain shouldn’t be above doing likewise for Irishmen and Scotsmen – even if they run the water for a month or the squad has to be bigger to accommodate them – while Regan Grace probably deserved a spot on pure merits.

Perhaps a different coach, a different team manager, a different stats guy, a different media manager would help instil in the group that Britain’s next game is a long way away and that you may lie back and think of England but you’re not representing it.

Great Britain don’t play in the World Cup – so every game on these rare and precious tours should be a World Cup final.