Game looks to Britain to help restore prestige

Dave Hadfield on a tour that illustrates the extent of rugby league's in-fighting
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The Independent Online
The wives and girlfriends of the players currently on their way to Papua New Guinea on the first leg of the Lions' Tour could be excused for suspecting that the whole thing is merely an elaborate charade.

Tour? What tour? Most people outside immediate rugby league circles will be unaware that one is about to take place.

There is a simple reason for this. It is not going to Australia - except for a change of planes between Papua New Guinea and Fiji - and a tour without Australia is, in many eyes, no tour at all. It has no sponsor and the media corps accompanying it is - how can I put it? - compact and select.

But matches between Great Britain and Australia are a victim of the impasse that exists between Super League and the Australian Rugby League. The international game must start to win back the prestige that has ebbed away disastrously since the success of the Centenary World Cup last autumn in less familiar settings.

Even in Papua New Guinea, the world-wide split that so disfigures the game will be evident. Four days after Great Britain fly out, following their Test against the Kumuls in Lae, the ARL will fly in to play an alternative Papua New Guinea side, based on the league in the capital, Port Moresby, which has broken away from the rest of the country to rejoin the Australians.

Despite that complication, tourists who were there in 1990 and 1992 will know what to expect from the most rugby league-obsessed nation on earth; lung-wrenching altitude at Mt Hagen, followed by overwhelming heat and humidity down at sea-level for the Test in Lae.

Throw in the rock-hard, bumpy pitches, a home team coached by a hard- driving Australian, Bob Bennett, and the ever-present possibility of riots when disappointed spectators are locked out of packed grounds and Papua New Guinea is unlikely to be dull.

Fiji is another of the code's on-going battlegrounds, with the Super League and the ARL both maintaining a presence there. It is Super League, however, that has the bulk of the more able players - including last year's World Cup squad and the players plying their trade in Britain and Australia - and the side facing Great Britain will be far stronger than the one thrashed by Australia this summer.

It is by their results in New Zealand, though, that the 1996 Lions will be judged. The Kiwis have not beaten Great Britain in a Test series since 1984, but there has rarely been much to choose between the two sides and Frank Endacott's New Zealand team is less affected by the unavailability of ARL-aligned players than the tourists.

It is in the three Tests in New Zealand that the calibre of the Lions' squad will be examined most sternly. For various reasons, their coach, Phil Larder, has been deprived of a full threequarter line of genuine international quality; Jason Robinson and Gary Connolly are ARL-contracted and playing rugby union, with Martin Offiah nursing an injury and waiting to resume his own union career and Paul Newlove ruled out with an ill- timed hamstring tear.

Larder needs some of his replacements - far less familiar names like Jon Roper and Keith Senior, as well as more seasoned players such as Alan Hunte and Anthony Sullivan - to rise to the occasion on tour, or Great Britain could find themselves lacking in firepower in the back line.

There are less headaches in the pack, although it would not take many injuries in the front-row to make it look distinctly threadbare.

Much will depend on the leadership of Great Britain's youngest-ever tour captain, Andy Farrell. He has long been an astonishingly mature player, but he is still only 21, this is his first tour and he will no doubt draw extensively on the experience of his vice-captain, Denis Betts, and Britain's most-capped player on this trip, Daryl Powell.

At the other end of the scale, young players like Paul Sculthorpe and Keiron Cunningham should return with their burgeoning reputations further enhanced.

With the result of the Super League's appeal against its banning in Australia expected during the tour, the reputation of international rugby league can also start to be rebuilt. Is it too much to hope that both Great Britain and New Zealand, who have a continuing battle over which is the second-best side in the world, will be making plans to play Australia again before this tour is over?

ITINERARY: 25 Sept: Highlands (Mt Hagen); 28 Sept: PAPUA NEW GUINEA (Lae); 2 Oct: Fiji President's XIII (Nadi); 5 Oct: FIJI (Nadi); 10 Oct: Lion Red XIII (Auckland); 15 Oct: New Zealand XIII (Wellington); 18 Oct: NEW ZEALAND (Auckland); 22 Oct: NZ Maori (Whangarei); 25 Oct: NEW ZEALAND (Palmerston North); 1 Nov: NEW ZEALAND (Christchurch).

LIONS TOUR SQUAD: Betts (Auckland Warriors), Bradbury (Oldham), Broadbent (Sheffield Eagles), Cassidy (Wigan), Critchley (Keighley), Cunningham (St Helens), Dwyer (Bradford Bulls), Farrell (Wigan, capt), Goulding (St Helens), Hammond (St Helens), Harris (Warrington), Hayes (St Helens), Harmon (Leeds), Joynt (St Helens), Lowes (Bradford), McDermott (Bradford Bulls), Mather (Western Reds), Morley (Leeds), Molloy (Featherstone Rovers), O'Connor (Wigan), Phillips (Workington), Powell (Keighley), Prescott (St Helens), Radlinski (Wigan), Sculthorpe (Warrington), Senior (Sheffield Eagles), Smith (Castleford), Spruce (Bradford), Sullivan (St Helens), Tollett (London Broncos).

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