Britain's toughest challenge leaves Noble excited

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The Independent Online

Great Britain's players, massing in the southern hemisphere for the start of their Tri-Nations campaign in Christchurch next Saturday, know a lot more about what awaits them after the past two weekends.

Having seen Australia beat New Zealand 30-18 a week ago, the Lions gathered around the wide-screen television at their base in Manly yesterday to see the heart-breaking late defeat for the Kiwis in Melbourne.

Within the mathematical logic of a three-cornered tournament, those are probably good results for Great Britain. In theory now, one win over New Zealand, in Christchurch or in Wellington two weeks later, could be enough to get them into the final. Not that there is much evidence to suggest it will be easy. The first words of the Great Britain coach, Brian Noble, when he arrived here were recognition of the scale of the task ahead.

"They are two very physical, talented, good football teams," he said of the Kiwis and the Kangaroos. "We know we've got to play to our potential to get anywhere near, but we're excited by that." The Kiwi coach, Brian McClennan, who guided his side to their memorable tournament victory in England last autumn, has predicted that they will improve match by match.

So far, he is right. After losing their way in the first half in Auckland, they played well in the second to achieve respectability. In Melbourne, they were the better team for all but the last five minutes.

The spine of the team is much as it was last year, with Stacey Jones and Nigel Vagana in the halves, Brent Webb at full-back and Ruben Wiki setting the tone in the forwards. They have also unearthed some exciting new talent in the centre pairing of Steve Matai and Iosia Soliola. If they continue their rapid dev-elopment in Christchurch, the Lions will have their hands full.

In between the two Australia-New Zealand matches, Great Britain got their own adventure off to a smooth enough start by winning their warm-up game against a Newcastle Division side 40-6 on Friday.

The opposition consisted of part-timers from the local competition in the New South Wales coal town, which does not sound too impressive from a British point of view until you remember the equivalent match seven years ago. The first time a Tri-Nations was attempted in 1999, our brave boys just squeezed past the non-league amateurs of the Burleigh Bears by 10-6.

Great Britain appear to have come through a rough, physical encounter without any significant injuries. The side who play the Kiwis will be very different after the addition of players held back on Friday having played in the Grand Final: players such as St Helens' Paul Wellens, Sean Long and Jon Wilkin, plus Gareth Raynor of Hull.

On top of that, Terry Newton should be fit and Adrian Morley will be clear of his suspension. But Noble will have seen enough, even from a distance, to know that he needs to be as close to full strength as possible to get his Tri-Nations off to a winning start.

Yesterday's game: Gasnier leaves it late to stun Kiwis

Australia scored twice in the final six minutes to claim a 20-15 victory which left New Zealand shattered in the second Test of the 2006 Tri-Nations at the Telstra Dome in Melbourne.

The Kangaroos looked beaten as a Stacey Jones drop goal put the Kiwis 15-8 ahead with eight minutes remaining, but late tries from Greg Inglis and Mark Gasnier proved the difference.

Two tries from Iosia Soliola and one from Shontayne Hape had given the Kiwis, looking to avenge last week's defeat, the edge, but Inglis kept the Kangaroos in contention with the first of his two scores. Johnathan Thurston landed all three conversions and a penalty. The Australians now have a week off before taking on Great Britain in a fortnight.