Britain's tour de farce

Dave Hadfield says that the Lions have had to fight on too many fronts
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The Independent Online
There have been times over the last bizarre week in New Zealand when Great Britain's tourists have wondered which presented the greater threat, the enemy without or the enemy within.

The New Zealanders have done their bit to inflict misery on the 1996 Lions, by becoming the first Kiwis to beat them in a series for 12 years. But they were helped by an astonishing display of ineptitude on the part of Britain's bosses back home. To have contacted the Great Britain squad - and only via the travel agents at that - in the early hours of Wednesday morning to tell them that they had to send 12 players home was a piece of crass insensitivity.

By the time they lost 18-15 to the Kiwis on Friday night, Britain's coaches and players were, to their credit, declining to use the affair as an excuse, but the fact is that it had a seriously disruptive effect on the team's preparations. At the very least, it cost the coach Phil Larder a day of his build up because his players were so angry at the treatment meted out to friends and team-mates on what has been, for all its disappointments on the playing front, a cohesive tour. "It kicked the guts out of them", Larder said at the time, whilst players freely volunteered the opinion that the whole business was an insult to them all.

All this for an estimated saving of pounds 5,000. The tour as a whole could lose as much as pounds 1m, but then tours to New Zealand always do lose money and it was never necessary to send half a Test squad home in the days before the injection of Rupert Murdoch's millions. The game never seemed quite so broke when it was poor.

The shame of it all is that bigger and better savings could have been made in ways that would have upset no-one, least of all players preparing for a vital Test. The itinerary, particularly a detour to Wellington for a midweek match which was so badly promoted that most people were unaware of it, has been especially wasteful.

Furthermore, if it had been announced from the start that the squad would be slimmed down for the final two Tests, no-one would have complained. But to do so as a knee-jerk reaction made the would-be slick and professional world of Super League resemble amateur hour.

Take the case of Keith Senior. Just over a week ago he was a Test player. On Wednesday morning, he became a tour discard. In the early hours of Thursday, he got back to his hotel room from a big - and supposedly final - night out in New Zealand to find a fax under his door telling him to stay on after all.

This is less the atmosphere of a serious sporting enterprise than of a Brian Rix farce. And what was especially galling for the tour party was that this intervention was just about the first evidence of any interest in the tour from League headquarters.

Even when the chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, was blithely talking about tagging two Tests in Australia on to the end of the expedition, there was no communication with the tour management and certainly none with the players. Players who, it should be remembered, in many cases chose to tour, rather than earning more money playing rugby union.

It says much for them that the players showed such commitment in the Second Test in Palmerston North on Friday, although that will be remembered less well than a result that ensured a series defeat. Great Britain now face the prospect of going through New Zealand without a win, but the doom and gloom over the squad's performances could easily be overdone.

There is so little between the two sides in this series that in fact the Lions could just as easily be 2-0 up as 2-0 down. "I have been asked where they need to improve to win the Third Test, but I don't think they need to improve much at all," said John Monie, who as the former coach of Wigan in their pomp, and the current incumbent at the Auckland Warriors, knows the players from both countries well. "These are two good teams and they have been involved in two outstanding Test matches. There is no need to feel too down about it."

There has indeed been much of a positive nature to come out of this tour, especially the accelerated development of a number of the younger players, like Stuart Spruce, Kris Radlinski, and Paul Sculthorpe.

Unfortunately, though, the tour will not be remembered for that at all. Instead, it will be remembered for the players who did not come, the ones who were sent home and the ones who, when it came to it, could not quite do enough to save the series.

lThe Castleford scrum-half, Tony Smith, is the latest player to be returning home. Smith has been suffering from an infected wound on his arm.