Blame and the lame

Dave Hadfield in Christchurch assesses a tour of widespread failure
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The Independent Online
The Great Britain rugby league coach Phil Larder sets out for home today, ready to start a new job while still hoping to keep his old one.

Larder has confirmed that he is to be the new coach of Sheffield Eagles, filling part of the void left by Gary Hetherington's takeover at Leeds. He believes the job will dovetail perfectly with his Great Britain role - always assuming that there is a Great Britain role for it to dovetail with. "There is no security in coaching. You're judged not on the job you do, but on your win record and that doesn't look too good at the moment," he said.

That is putting it mildly. Larder is nearer the mark when he admitted: "We are going back with an appalling record. But I'm very critical when I examine what I've done and I don't feel I could have done too much more. If we were starting again, I'd do it very much the same."

In truth, there would be little justice in making him the scapegoat for what is on paper Great Britain's worst-ever tour. Larder and a small group of British players spent their last day in New Zealand yesterday skiing in the mountains above Christchurch, but the fact is that this was a tour that was going downhill fast before it ever left England.

The absence of players like Jason Robinson, Paul Newlove and Gary Connolly - any one of whom could have swung the balance in the crucial first two Tests in New Zealand - ensured the squad was under strength. The transition from winter to summer rugby guaranteed that it was also exhausted. Some players have taken part in more than 60 games over two back-to-back seasons since their last proper rest. "You had to be involved as a coach or as a player to realise how mentally tiring that was," Larder said. "We are all absolutely shattered."

That alone made the tourists vulnerable to a Kiwi side on the ascendant after years of underachievement. But three extra factors combined after their arrival in New Zealand to make life yet more difficult for the Lions.

The tour began to go wrong the night that a Test-strength Great Britain side could only draw with a modest Lion Red XIII in Auckland in their first match in the country. That was the moment when a measure of self- doubt began to creep in. Despite that, they could and should have won the first Test and would have done so if Adrian Morley - one of the young players who will benefit enormously in the long term from this tour - had not been harshly sin-binned at the end.

Last, but certainly not least in its impact on morale, was the decision from England to call 11 players home before the second Test. Those left behind kept their level of performance up for that game, but suffered a reaction afterwards which, along with an ever-worsening injury position, made their record 20-point defeat in Christchurch on Friday no great surprise.

Compared to other famously unsuccessful tours, this one has not been badly run by the people actually here. Larder is particularly full of praise for his tour manager Phil Lowe. "He had a harder job than any previous tour manager, because he had financial problems all the time," Larder said.

Other bad tours, like 1984 when three Tests were lost in both Australia and New Zealand, were full of players who by the end would never be mentioned in a Great Britain context again. That is not the case this time. Rather than being written off, young players like Kieran Cunningham, Paul Sculthorpe, Iestyn Harris and Morley, of whom perhaps too much was expected, will be better for the experience.

Larder will thus have much to reflect upon as he settles into the job at Sheffield, where John Kear, who coached Paris last season, is expected to join him as assistant. Neither has too much reason to look altogether fondly on the last month or so.

Like Larder with his Lions, Kear, at present the League's academy executive, saw his under 19 touring team beaten three times by the Kiwis. Putting together a team for next season's Super League will seem straightforward by comparison.

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