Papua New Guinea showed in last autumn's Centenary World Cup in England that they are starting to convert the nation's passion for the game into tangible results on the field. In the hot and sticky atmosphere of their home environment, they were nothing short of formidable.
A blend of the raw talent of their home-based players with the greater sophistication of those like Sydney City's Adrian Lam and Hull Kingston Rovers' Stanley Gene makes them a potent force, especially at home. As more than one Great Britain player pointed out after feeling the force of their commitment on Saturday, "This lot are nobody's pushovers anymore."
That a Lions side lacking many of the British game's stars, and with players affected by illness and debilitated by the heat, should beat them was a splendid effort for which they will get too little credit back home. It would have been an easy game to have lost, and to have squeezed out a victory was due not just to some superior goal-kicking from Bobbie Goulding but also to a steely determination within the squad.
Andy Farrell epitomised that attitude. On the field for most of the game despite Britain's constant alternating of players to save them from the effects of the heat, Farrell played it hard, he played it safe and, above all, played it like a man determined to lead Great Britain to triumph.
His most able lieutenant was Paul Sculthorpe, the 19-year-old Warrington forward, whose physical and tactical maturity belies his years. In a game where the lead changed hands five times, Farrell, Sculthorpe and Paul Broadbent, who topped the tackle count on this exhausting terrain, gave Great Britain their continuity.
Many mocked the Great Britain coach, Phil Larder, when he selected his perennial favourite, Daryl Powell, as a late replacement for this tour, but the Keighley Cougars player- coach was a reassuring presence in the backs. He will probably not want this carving on his tombstone, but Powell is a PNG specialist, now having played nine games here on three tours and seeming to thrive on conditions that others find close to intolerable. In the two games on this leg of this year's tour, Powell has already justified his airfare.
There were many other good points to come out of the British performance, particularly the all-round competence of Kris Radlinski, with his two tries and solid defence in the centres, and the promising link between Goulding and Iestyn Harris.
If he had never laid a hand on the ball, Goulding's kicking alone would have made him the decisive influence on this match while Harris, in his first game for eight weeks, showed that his rugby intelligence and instinctive side-step have not been eroded.
The match was also a victory of sorts for Stuart Spruce, who recovered from two embarrassing early mistakes which both cost tries to show something of his running ability from full-back.
And yet for all that, Great Britain would have lost if PNG had had a decent kicker. The man in the job, the squat hooker Elias Paiyo, kicked so badly that he stunned the crowd when he put over his most difficult shot late in the game, the cumulative damage to his side's prospects having been done earlier.
"I suppose everyone here will say that the better side lost," said the PNG coach, Bob Bennett. "I don't really think so, although there wasn't much in it. We prepared well but we neglected one aspect - the goal-kicking - and paid the price for that."
Lam, the Kumuls captain, agreed: "If we had had Goulding's kicking we would have won." Lam, along with Gene, Hull centre Markus Bai, and Robert Sio, a side-stepping full-back who has been approached by Sheffield Eagles, gave Britain's backs plenty of trouble.
Ben Bire, an imposing prop who glories in the nickname "Bigfoot", scored the two tries that gave PNG a chance of snatching back the game at the end. It was not quite enough, but visiting sides who already know not to underestimate conditions here are now forewarned to treat Papua New Guinea's players with equal respect.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Sio (Lae); Kops (Mt Hagen), Bai (Hull), Tela (Lae), Gomia (Mt Hagen); Gene (Hull KR), Lam (Sydney City); Bire (Kundarwa), Paiyo (Canberra), Karl (Mendi), Yer (Mendi), Westley (Canberra), Mamando (Canberra). Substitutes used: Kundi (Lae), Tire (Mt Hagen), Ruing (Mendi), Batia (Pt Moresby).
GREAT BRITAIN: Spruce (Bradford); Hayes (St Helens), Radlinski (Wigan), Hunte (St Helens), Sullivan (St Helens); Harris (Warrington), Goulding (St Helens); Broadbent (Sheffield), Cunningham (St Helens), O'Connor (Wigan), Betts (Auckland), Joynt (St Helens), Farrell (Wigan). Substitutes used: Smith (Castleford), Phillips (Workington), Powell (Keighley), Sculthorpe (Warrington).
Referee: S Clarke (Australia).Reuse content